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Abstract

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) nonstructural 5A (NS5A) protein has been implicated in the inherent resistance of HCV to interferon (IFN) antiviral therapy in clinical studies. Biochemical studies have demonstrated that NS5A interacts in vitro with and inhibits the IFN-induced, RNA-dependent protein kinase, PKR, and that NS5A interacts with at least one other cellular kinase. The present study describes the establishment and characterization of various stable NS5A-expressing human cell lines, and the development of a cell culture–based assay for determining the inherent IFN resistance of clinical NS5A isolates. Human epithelioid (Hela) and osteosarcoma (U2-OS) cell lines were generated that express NS5A under tight regulation by the tetracycline-dependent promoter. Maximal expression of NS5A occurred at 48 hours following the removal of tetracycline from the culture medium. The half-life of NS5A in these cell lines was between 4 to 6 hours. NS5A protein expression was localized cytoplasmically, with a staining pattern consistent with the location of the Golgi apparatus and endoplasmic reticulum. In the majority of cell lines, no obvious phenotypic changes were observed. However, three genotype 1b NS5A–expressing osteosarcoma cell lines exhibited cytopathic effect and severely reduced proliferation as a result of high-level NS5A expression. Full-length NS5A protein isolated from a genotype 1b IFN–nonresponsive patient (NS5A-1b) was capable of rescuing encephalomyocardititis virus replication during IFN challenge up to 40-fold, whereas a full-length NS5A-1a and an interferon sensitivity determining region (ISDR) deletion mutant (NS5A-1a-▵ISDR) isolated from a genotype 1a IFN–nonresponsive patient showed no rescue activity. The NS5A-1b and NS5A-1a proteins also rescued vesicular stomatitis virus replication during IFN treatment by two- to threefold. These data cummulatively suggest that NS5A expression alone can render cells partially resistant to the effects of IFN against IFN-sensitive viruses, and that in some systems, these effects may be independent of the putative ISDR. A scenario is discussed in which the NS5A protein may employ multiple strategies contributing to IFN resistance during HCV infection.