Background: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) translation is initiated in a cap-independent manner by an internal ribosome entry site (IRES) located within the 5' untranslated region (5'UTR). Sequence changes in this region could affect translation efficiency and presumably viral replication.
Aim: To determine translation efficiency of 5'UTR variants developing during post-transfusion hepatitis C in two immunocompetent subjects and in two immunosuppressed liver recipients with recurrent HCV.
Methods: Sequential samples were screened for 5'UTR changes by single-strand conformation polymorphism followed by cloning and sequencing whenever band pattern suggested sequence changes. 5'UTR variants were tested for IRES activity using a bicistronic dual luciferase expression plasmid transfected into HepG2 and Huh7 cell-lines.
Results: In the transfused patients, translation efficiency of 5'UTR variants from early post-transfusion samples was 5.1- to 13.7-fold higher than that of predominant variants found in late follow-up samples. Post-transplant variants in the other two patients had 2.6- to 5.9-fold higher translation efficiency than those present only in pretransplant samples.
Conclusion: In the immunocompetent host there may be selection of low translation efficiency HCV variants over the course of infection. However, in immunosuppressed subjects the opposite seems to be true as low translation efficiency variants are superseded by high translation efficiency variants.