The extreme 5'-proximal sequence of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) genome including the 5' non-coding region (5'NCR) of 341 nucleotide long and the first 30 nucleotides of the core region is highly conserved among different HCV genotypes. It contains a segment termed Internal Ribosome Entry Site (IRES) that regulates the cap-independent translation of HCV-RNA to polyprotein. Sequence variability in this region has important implications for structural organisation and function of the IRES element and could correlate with HCV RNA concentration or response to antiviral therapy. Fourteen patients (seven women, seven men) with chronic hepatitis C were separated into two groups according to their response to antiviral therapy. Seven of these were sustained responders to treatment by Interferon alpha 2b and Ribavirin and seven were non-responders. After cloning-sequencing, the IRES (nt 21 to 374) appears to be structurally highly conserved. However some variability was found between the different isolates obtained: 209 substitutions with a median of four variants/patients. Comparison of the number of variants present in the viral population of the sustained responders and non-responders patients do not show any difference. Positioning of the mutations on the predicted IRES secondary structure showed that the distribution of the mutations and their apparition frequency were different between the two groups. The translation initiator AUG-4 codon, located in the stem-loop IV, is never modified. Variations observed in the IRES are not a parameter of response to antiviral therapy, but the integrity of this region is a necessary condition to maintain its activity.
Copyright 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.