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J Virol. 2010 May;84(10):5067-77. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02265-09. Epub 2010 Mar 3.

Acceleration of hepatitis C virus envelope evolution in humans is consistent with progressive humoral immune selection during the transition from acute to chronic infection.

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Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, 855 N. Wolfe St., suite 530, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA.


During the transition from acute to chronic infection in individuals persistently infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV), cellular responses initiate within the first 6 months of primary infection and collapse thereafter, whereas humoral responses activate later during the chronic phase. Whether and how this deviation of immune responses specifically influences HCV evolution are unknown. To determine the pattern of HCV evolution during this critical period, we conducted extensive sequence analysis on annual clonal hemigenomic sequences for up to 3 years in six well-characterized subjects, using statistical methods that accounted for repeated measures. Significantly different evolutionary rates were observed in envelope versus nonenvelope genes, with an increasing rate of nonsynonymous change (dN) in envelope genes and a stable dN in nonenvelope genes (P = 0.006). The ratio of the envelope to nonenvelope nonsynonymous rate increased from 2 in year 1 to 5 in years 2 and 3. Centripetal changes (reversions toward matching of the worldwide subtype 1a consensus sequence) were frequently observed during the 3-year transition from acute infection to chronicity, even in the presence of neutralizing antibody (NAb) pressure. Remarkably, sequences of hypervariable region 1 (HVR1) remained stable for up to 21 months in the absence of NAb pressure in one subject, followed by rapid changes that were temporally associated with the detection of NAb responses, which strongly suggests that HVR1 evolution is shaped by NAb pressure. These data provide the first systematic estimates of HCV evolutionary rates in multiple genes during early infection in vivo and provide additional evidence for deterministic, rather than random, evolution of HCV.

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