Open Access Research

Characterization of antigenic variants of hepatitis C virus in immune evasion

Jane H Wang123*, Matthew J Pianko2, Xiaogang Ke1, Alex Herskovic2, Ronald Hershow4, Scott J Cotler1, Weijin Chen5, Zheng W Chen3 and Lijun Rong3*

Author Affiliations

1 Section of Hepatology, Department of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago, Illinois, USA

2 Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, Department of Pediatrics, the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, USA

3 Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Illinois at Chicago, Illinois, USA

4 Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, Illinois, USA

5 Changchun Institute of Biological Products, China National Biotec Group Int. Changchun, China

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Virology Journal 2011, 8:377  doi:10.1186/1743-422X-8-377

Published: 29 July 2011



Antigenic variation is an effective way by which viruses evade host immune defense leading to viral persistence. Little is known about the inhibitory mechanisms of viral variants on CD4 T cell functions.


Using sythetic peptides of a HLA-DRB1*15-restricted CD4 epitope derived from the non-structural (NS) 3 protein of hepatitis C virus (HCV) and its antigenic variants and the peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from six HLA-DRB1*15-positive patients chronically infected with HCV and 3 healthy subjects, the in vitro immune responses and the phenotypes of CD4+CD25+ cells of chronic HCV infection were investigated. The variants resulting from single or double amino acid substitutions at the center of the core region of the Th1 peptide not only induce failed T cell activation but also simultaneously up-regulate inhibitory IL-10, CD25-TGF-β+ Th3 and CD4+IL-10+ Tr1 cells. In contrast, other variants promote differentiation of CD25+TGF-β+ Th3 suppressors that attenuate T cell proliferation.


Naturally occuring HCV antigenic mutants of a CD4 epitope can shift a protective peripheral Th1 immune response into an inhibitory Th3 and/or Tr1 response. The modulation of antigenic variants on CD4 response is efficient and extensive, and is likely critical in viral persistence in HCV infection.