background and purpose Celastrol, a quinone methide triterpene isolated from the root extracts of Tripterygium wilfordii, can greatly induce the gene expression activity of heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) to achieve disease prevention and control. HO-1 induction was recently shown to result in anti-HCV activity by inducing type I interferon and inhibiting hepatitis C virus (HCV) NS3/4A protease activity. The aim of the present study is to evaluate the anti-HCV activity of celastrol and characterize its mechanism of inhibition. Methods The anti-HCV activity of celastrol was evaluated using the HCV subgenomic replicon and HCVcc infection systems. The anti-HCV mechanism of celastrol targeting HO-1 expression was clarified using specific inhibitors against several signaling pathways. The transcriptional regulation of celastrol on target gene expression was determined using promoter-based reporter activity assay. The synergistic effect of celastrol and a numbers of clinically used anti-HCV drugs was determined via a drug combination assay. Results Celastrol inhibited HCV replication in both the HCV subgenomic and HCVcc infection systems with EC50 values of 0.37 ± 0.022 and 0.43 ± 0.019 μM, respectively. Celastrol-induced heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1) expression promoted antiviral interferon responses and inhibition of NS3/4A protease activity, thereby blocking HCV replication. These antiviral effects were abrogated by treatment with the HO-1-specific inhibitor SnMP or silencing of HO-1 expression by transfection of shRNA, which indicates that HO-1 induction contributes to the anti-HCV activity of celastrol. JNK mitogen-activated protein kinase and nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2) were confirmed to be involved in the inductive effect of celastrol on HO-1 expression. Celastrol exhibited synergistic effects in combination with interferon-alpha, the NS5A inhibitor daclatasvir, and the NS5B inhibitor sofosbuvir. Conclusion Celastrol can serve as a potential supplement for blocking HCV replication. Targeting the JNK/Nrf2/HO-1 axis presents a promising strategy against HCV infection.
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