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Identification of antigenic escape variants in an immunodominant epitope of hepatitis C virus

Identification of antigenic escape variants in an immunodominant epitope of hepatitis C virus


Numerous investigators have postulated that one mechanism by which hepatitis C virus (HCV) may evade the immune system is through the formation of escape mutants. This hypothesis is based largely on the observed mutability of the viral genome resulting in evolution of diverse quasispecies over the course of infection. That such diversification is a product of viral RNA polymerase infidelity, immune-driven selection or a combination of the two processes has not been addressed. We have examined sequence variability in a specific segment of HCV RNA encoding a known immunodominant region of the viral helicase, amino acids 358-375 of the non-structural 3 protein. Using sequence-specific oligonucleotide probe hybridization and automated DNA sequencing, we report a high frequency of mutations, essentially all of which result in amino acid replacements. To assess the biological impact of such mutations, corresponding chemically synthesized peptides were compared to wild-type peptide in T cell proliferation assays. We observed that a sizeable fraction of such peptides stimulated attenuated or negligible levels of proliferation by peripheral T cells from a chronically infected patient. This observation is consistent with expectations for immune-mediated selection of escape variants at the epitope level. We postulate that such a mechanism may be important in the immunopathogenesis of HCV infections. Key words : hepatitis, T cells, epitopes, immunopathogenesis, synthetic peptides
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