The human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) protease is essential for production of infectious virus and is therefore a major target for the development of drugs against AIDS. Cellular proteins are also cleaved by the protease, which explains its cytotoxic activity and the consequent failure to establish convenient cell-based protease assays. We have exploited this toxicity to develop a new protease assay that relies on transient expression of an artificial protease precursor harboring the green fluorescent protein (GFP-PR). The precursor is activated in vivo by autocatalytic cleavage, resulting in rapid elimination of protease-expressing cells. Treatment with therapeutic doses of HIV-1 protease inhibitors results in a dose-dependent accumulation of the fluorescent precursor that can be easily detected and quantified by flow cytometric and fluorimetric assays. The precursor provides a convenient and noninfectious model for high-throughput screenings of substances that can interfere with the activity of the protease in living cells
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