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J Immunol. 1999 Apr 1;162(7):4177-83.

Mutations in immunodominant T cell epitopes derived from the nonstructural 3 protein of hepatitis C virus have the potential for generating escape variants that may have important consequences for T cell recognition.

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  • 1The Blood Research Institute, The Blood Center, Milwaukee, WI 53201, USA.


One of the most disturbing features of hepatitis C virus (HCV) is its long-term persistence in the host. One hypothesis to explain this phenomenon is that HCV escapes immune recognition through its intrinsic hypermutability. To determine whether immunodominant T cell epitopes derived from HCV nonstructural 3 (NS3) protein might be subject to sequence variations leading to escape mutants, we examined sequence variations of one IL-2-producing epitope, NS3358-375, and one IL-10-producing epitope, NS3505-521. By PCR amplification, cloning, and sequencing, we observed significant sequence variations in the two epitopes, although the selection intensity for each epitope was different. For NS3358-375, more variants were observed, and for NS3505-521, fewer mutations were observed. Moreover, functional studies revealed that three NS3358-375 and one NS3505-521 variants failed to stimulate T cell proliferation, and two other NS3358-375 and NS3505-521 variants weakly stimulated T cell responses. Our results are consistent with immune selection of viral variants at the epitope level, which may enable HCV to evade host defenses over time.

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