Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections rely on the proper functioning of the viral polymerase enzyme, a specialized reverse transcriptase (RT) with multiple activities. All currently approved antiviral drugs for the treatment of chronic HBV infection, except for interferon, target the RT and belong to the same chemical class - they are all nucleoside analogs. Viral DNA synthesis is carried out by the RT enzyme in several different steps, each with distinct RT conformational requirements. In principle, each stage may be targeted by distinct antiviral drugs. In particular, the HBV RT has the unique ability to initiate viral DNA synthesis using itself as a protein primer in a novel protein priming reaction. In order to help identify RT inhibitors and study their mechanisms of action, a number of experimental systems have been developed, each varying in its ability to dissect the protein priming stage and subsequent stages of viral DNA synthesis at the molecular level. Two of the most effective drugs to date, entecavir and tenofovir, can inhibit both the protein priming and the subsequent DNA elongation stages of HBV DNA synthesis. Interestingly, clevudine, a thymidine analog, can inhibit both protein priming and DNA elongation in a non-competitive manner and without being incorporated into the viral DNA. Thus, a nucleoside RT inhibitor (NRTI) can functionally mimic a non-NRTI (NNRTI) in its inhibition of the HBV RT. Therefore, novel NRTIs as well as NNRTIs may be developed to inhibit the DNA synthesis activity of the HBV RT. Furthermore, additional activities of the RT that are also essential to HBV replication, including specific recognition of the viral RNA and its packaging into viral nucleocapsids, may be exploited for antiviral development. To achieve a more potent inhibition of viral replication and ultimately cure chronic HBV infection, the next generation of anti-HBV therapies will likely need to include NRTIs, NNRTIs, and other agents that target the viral RT as well as other viral and host factors in various combinations. This article forms part of a symposium in Antiviral Research on "An unfinished story: from the discovery of the Australia antigen to the development of new curative therapies for hepatitis B."
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