Human alpha and beta defensins contribute substantially to innate immune defenses against microbial and viral infections. Certain nonhuman primates also produce theta-defensins—18 residue cyclic peptides that act as HIV-1 entry inhibitors. Multiple human theta-defensin genes exist, but they harbor a premature termination codon that blocks translation. Consequently, the theta-defensins (retrocyclins) encoded within the human genome are not expressed as peptides. In vivo production of theta-defensins in rhesus macaques involves the post-translational ligation of two nonapeptides, each derived from a 12-residue “demidefensin” precursor. Neither the mechanism of this unique process nor its existence in human cells is known. To ascertain if human cells retained the ability to process demidefensins, we transfected human promyelocytic cells with plasmids containing repaired retrocyclin-like genes. The expected peptides were isolated, their sequences were verified by mass spectrometric analyses, and their anti-HIV-1 activity was confirmed in vitro. Our study reveals for the first time, to our knowledge, that human cells have the ability to make cyclic theta-defensins. Given this evidence that human cells could make theta-defensins, we attempted to restore endogenous expression of retrocyclin peptides. Since human theta-defensin genes are transcribed, we used aminoglycosides to read-through the premature termination codon found in the mRNA transcripts. This treatment induced the production of intact, bioactive retrocyclin-1 peptide by human epithelial cells and cervicovaginal tissues. The ability to reawaken retrocyclin genes from their 7 million years of slumber using aminoglycosides could provide a novel way to secure enhanced resistance to HIV-1 infection.
Defensins are a large family of small antimicrobial peptides that contribute to host defense against a broad spectrum of pathogens. In primates, defensins are divided into three subfamilies—alpha, beta, and theta—on the basis of their disulfide bonding pattern. Theta-defensins were the most recently identified defensin subfamily, isolated initially from white blood cells and bone marrow of rhesus monkeys. They are the only known cyclic peptides in mammals and act primarily by preventing viruses such as HIV-1 from entering cells. Whereas theta-defensin genes are intact in Old World monkeys, in humans they have a premature stop codon that prevents their expression; they thus exist as pseudogenes. In this work, we reveal that, upon correction of the premature termination codon in theta-defensin pseudogenes, human myeloid cells produce cyclic, antiviral peptides (which we have termed “retrocyclins”), indicating that the cells retain the intact machinery to make cyclic peptides. Furthermore, we exploited the ability of aminoglycoside antibiotics to read-through the premature termination codon within retrocyclin transcripts to produce functional peptides that are active against HIV-1. Given that the endogenous production of retrocyclins could also be restored in human cervicovaginal tissues, we propose that aminoglycoside-based topical microbicides might be useful in preventing sexual transmission of HIV-1.
Repairing an ancestral human pseudogene by mutagenesis, or by the application of aminoglycosides to suppress the termination codon, can restore the production of retrocyclins, which are peptides of the defensin family that are remarkable inhibitors of HIV-1 entry into cells.