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Genetic heterogeneity of the hepatitis C virus.

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Hepatitis Viruses Section, Laboratory of Infectous Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-0740, USA.


Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is an important etiological agent in the development of chronic liver diseases such as chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). The virus, identified only recently, contains a single-stranded RNA genome of positive polarity, is distantly related to pestiviruses and flaviviruses, and has been classified as the first member of a third genus within the family Flaviviridae. Extensive analysis of HCV genomic sequences demonstrated that this virus possesses significant genetic heterogeneity. Different regions of the viral genome demonstrate a varying degree of heterogeneity; the regions coding for the putative envelope proteins are the most variable sites between different isolates. Furthermore, HCV circulates as a quasispecies in the host. During the course of acute and chronic infection, the sequence composition of the HCV population in one patient has been found to change sequentially with an extremely high rate of nonconserved nucleotide changes in the hypervariable region I (HVR1) of HCV. Such sequence changes alter the antigenicity of the epitopes coded within HVR1 so that these are not always recognized by preexisting antibodies. It has been suggested that this could represent one mechanism by which HCV evades host immune surveillance and may account for the high rate of chronicity observed in such infections. Continuous viral replication may, in turn, lead to the development of chronic liver disease, including HCC, in infected individuals. To date, at least nine major genetic groups (genotypes 1-9) and more than 30 subgroups of HCV have been recognized based on genetic differences. A distinct difference has been observed in the genotype distribution in Africa compared with other continents. Recent data have suggested a difference in pathogenesis and in the outcome of interferon therapy in individuals infected with HCV of certain genotypes. For example, genotype 1b (II) seems to be associated with more severe liver disease, including HCC, and with a poorer response to interferon therapy. The extensive genetic heterogeneity of HCV may have serious implications for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of hepatitis C as well as in understanding the biology of infection by this important human pathogen.

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