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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1996 Mar 5;93(5):1759-63.

A quantitative test to estimate neutralizing antibodies to the hepatitis C virus: cytofluorimetric assessment of envelope glycoprotein 2 binding to target cells.

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  • 1Chiron-Biocine, Immunobiology Research Institute of Siena (IRIS), Italy.


Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a major cause of chronic hepatitis. The virus does not replicate efficiently in cell cultures, and it is therefore difficult to assess infection-neutralizing antibodies and to evaluate protective immunity in vitro. To study the binding of the HCV envelope to cell-surface receptors, we developed an assay to assess specific binding of recombinant envelope proteins to human cells and neutralization thereof. HCV recombinant envelope proteins expressed in various systems were incubated with human cells, and binding was assessed by flow cytometry using anti-envelope antibodies. Envelope glycoprotein 2 (E2) expressed in mammalian cells, but not in yeast or insect cells, binds human cells with high affinity (Kd approximately 10(-8) M). We then assessed antibodies able to neutralize E2 binding in the sera of both vaccinated and carrier chimpanzees, as well as in the sera of humans infected with various HCV genotypes. Vaccination with recombinant envelope proteins expressed in mammalian cells elicited high titers of neutralizing antibodies that correlated with protection from HCV challenge. HCV infection does not elicit neutralizing antibodies in most chimpanzees and humans, although low titers of neutralizing antibodies were detectable in a minority of infections. The ability to neutralize binding of E2 derived from the HCV-1 genotype was equally distributed among sera from patients infected with HCV genotypes 1, 2, and 3, demonstrating that binding of E2 is partly independent of E2 hypervariable regions. However, a mouse monoclonal antibody raised against the E2 hypervariable region 1 can partially neutralize binding of E2, indicating that at least two neutralizing epitopes, one of which is hypervariable, should exist on the E2 protein. The neutralization-of-binding assay described will be useful to study protective immunity to HCV infection and for vaccine development.

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