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J Immunol. 1999 Jan 15;162(2):931-8.

Suppression of host immune response by the core protein of hepatitis C virus: possible implications for hepatitis C virus persistence.

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  • 1Beirne Carter Center for Immunology Research, University of Virginia, Charlottesville 22908, USA.


Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a major human pathogen causing mild to severe liver disease worldwide. This positive strand RNA virus is remarkably efficient at establishing chronic infections. Although a high rate of genetic variability may facilitate viral escape and persistence in the face of Ag-specific immune responses, HCV may also encode proteins that facilitate evasion of immunological surveillance. To address the latter possibility, we examined the influence of specific HCV gene products on the host immune response to vaccinia virus in a murine model. Various vaccinia/HCV recombinants expressing different regions of the HCV polyprotein were used for i.p. inoculation of BALB/c mice. Surprisingly, a recombinant expressing the N-terminal half of the polyprotein (including the structural proteins, p7, NS2, and a portion of NS3; vHCV-S) led to a dose-dependent increase in mortality. Increased mortality was not observed for a recombinant expressing the majority of the nonstructural region or for a negative control virus expressing the beta-galactosidase protein. Examination of T cell responses in these mice revealed a marked suppression of vaccinia-specific CTL responses and a depressed production of IFN-gamma and IL-2. By using a series of vaccinia/HCV recombinants, we found that the HCV core protein was sufficient for immunosuppression, prolonged viremia, and increased mortality. These results suggest that the HCV core protein plays an important role in the establishment and maintenance of HCV infection by suppressing host immune responses, in particular the generation of virus-specific CTLs.

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