Brincidofovir (illustrated) is a modified version of an antiviral drug called cidofovir, which inhibits replication of a variety of DNA viruses including poxviruses and herpesviruses. When cidofovir enters a cell, two phosphates are added to the compound by a cellular enzyme, producing cidofovir diphosphate. Cidofovir is used by viral DNA polymerases because it looks very much like a normal building block of DNA, cytidine. For reasons that are not known, incorporation of phosphorylated cidofovir causes inefficient viral DNA synthesis. As a result, viral replication is inhibited.
Cidofovir was modified by the addition of a lipid chain to produce brincidofovir. This compound (pictured) is more potent, can be given orally, and does not have kidney toxicity, a problem with cidofovir. When brincidofovir enters a cell, the lipid is removed, giving rise to cidofovir. Brincidofovir inhibits poxviruses, herpesviruses, and adenoviruses, and has been tested in phase 2 and 3 clinical trials. The antiviral drug is being stockpiled by the US for use in the event of a bioterrorism attack with smallpox virus.
Ebola virus is an RNA virus, so why was brincidofovir used to treat the Dallas patient? According to the drug’s manufacturer, Chimerix, with the onset of the Ebola virus outbreak in early 2014, the company provided brincidofovir, and other compounds, to the CDC and NIH to determine if they could inhibit virus replication. Apparently brincidofovir was found to be a potent inhibitor of Ebola virus replication in cell culture. Based on this finding, and the fact that the compound had been tested for safety in humans, the US FDA authorized its emergency use in the Dallas patient.
Unfortunately the Dallas patient passed away on 8 October. Even if he had survived, we would not have known if the compound had any effect. Furthermore, the drug is not without side effects and these might not be tolerated in Ebola virus-infected patients. It seems likely that the drug will also be used if other individuals in the US are infected.
Looking at the compound, one could not predict that it would inhibit Ebola virus, which has an RNA genome. RNA polymerases use different substrates than DNA polymerases – NTPs versus dNTPs. NTPs have two hydroxyls on the ribose sugar, while dNTPs have just one (pictured). The ribose is not present in cidofovir, although several hydroxyls are available for chain extension. I suspect that the company was simply taking a chance on whether any of its antiviral compounds in development, which had gone through clinical trials, would be effective. This procedure is standard in emergency situations, and might financially benefit the company.
Update: The NBC news cameraman is being treated with brincidofovir in Nebraska.