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Abstract

To evaluate the clinical significance of sequence variations in the hypervariable region of hepatitis C virus during the course of chronic infection, we performed pairwise comparison of the predominant nucleotide sequences. Hepatitis C virus RNA was extracted from two plasma samples obtained from 12 chronically infected Japanese patients over approximately 1 yr. Complementary DNA containing the hypervariable region was amplified by means of reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction and was directly sequenced for determination of predominant sequences. In all 12 individuals, the predominant sequence of the hypervariable region at the second time point differed from that at the first time point, and significant sequence variation was observed during this short period. A high proportion of these nucleotide substitutions (90%) resulted in changes of predicted amino acid sequences, indirect evidence of in vivo positive selection for these variants. There appeared to be an important difference in the rate of nucleotide sequence variation of the hypervariable region between four patients with flare-ups of their ALT levels (1.54 to 2.24 × 10-−1/genome site/yr) and eight patients with quiescent courses (0.13 to 1.21 × 10−1/genome site/yr). These results demonstrate that rapid sequence variations of the hypervariable region of predominant virus population take place during the natural course of chronic hepatitis C virus infection. These sequence variations seem to occur as an adaptive response of hepatitis C virus to evade host immunity and may play a major role in the establishment of persistent infection and in the occasional flare-up of hepatitis. (HEPATOLOGY 1993;18:1293–1299.)