Retroviruses require a specific host cellular tRNA primer for initiation of first-strand DNA synthesis. This primer is bound by viral proteins and copackaged into virions. We have exploited this property in the design and testing of an antiviral ribozyme fused to tRNA3(Lys), the primer used for lentiviral replication, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1 and HIV-2). The chimera consists of tRNA3(Lys) covalently attached to a hammerhead ribozyme, which is targeted to the region immediately upstream of the primer binding site of the HIV-1 genome. The tRNA-ribozyme chimeric transcript is catalytically active in vitro and is efficiently bound by HIV reverse transcriptase with an affinity similar to that of tRNA3(Lys). We have expressed the chimeric RNAs from either the tRNA3(Lys) intragenic RNA polymerase III promoter or from a human U6 snRNA promoter. The U6 promoter results in up to 10-fold enhanced expression of the tRNA-ribozyme. Most importantly, the tRNA3(Lys)-ribozymes are encapsidated in HIV-1 virions such that they are effective in substantially reducing the level of infectious virus produced from cells cotransfected with HIV-1 proviral DNA. These results demonstrate the feasibility of using this novel strategy to reduce HIV infectivity and more generally indicate the potential power of using the retroviral primer tRNAs as tools for expressing and delivering ribozymes and other antiretroviral RNAs to the virion capsid.
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