Immune selection and genetic sequence variation in core and envelope regions of hepatitis C virus.
Christie JM., Chapel H., Chapman RW., Rosenberg WM.
How Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) causes persistent infection is unknown. One hypothesis is that HCV evades the host immune response through mutation in immune epitopes. We have investigated mutations in the HCV genome to see if they cluster within immune epitopes; and we have studied the effect of antibody deficiency on mutation rates. We studied patients with chronic hepatitis C, 3 with antibody deficiency and 3 with normal immunity. Regions of the core and envelope genes of HCV, encoding cytotoxic (CTL), and B cell epitopes were sequenced at 2 time points, 2 years apart. The diversity of quasispecies increased with time. The HCV genetic mutation rate was higher than previously predicted. The cryptic nucleotide mutation rate in core was similar to that observed in envelope, suggesting that the error rate of the HCV RNA polymerase is similar in both regions. In contrast, the coding mutation rate was decreased in core and increased in envelope. No genetic mutation was seen in any of the core CTL epitopes despite detectable cellular responses. All patients had mutations within a previously described envelope CTL epitope but did not exhibit immune responses to either index or mutated peptides. There was no difference in mutation rates in any cellular or humoral epitopes between patients with antibody deficiency and normal immunity. Thus we have found no evidence that mutations were selected by T-lymphocytes or antibodies. These findings implicate alternative virus-host interactions in the selection of HCV mutations.