Non-human primate surrogate model of hepatitis C virus infection


  • Hirofumi Akari,

    1. Laboratory of Disease Control, Tsukuba Primate Research Center, National Institute of Biomedical Innovation, 1-1 Hachimandai, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0843, Japan
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  • Yuki Iwasaki,

    1. Laboratory of Disease Control, Tsukuba Primate Research Center, National Institute of Biomedical Innovation, 1-1 Hachimandai, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0843, Japan
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  • Tomoyuki Yoshida,

    1. Laboratory of Disease Control, Tsukuba Primate Research Center, National Institute of Biomedical Innovation, 1-1 Hachimandai, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0843, Japan
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  • Sayuki Iijima

    1. Laboratory of Disease Control, Tsukuba Primate Research Center, National Institute of Biomedical Innovation, 1-1 Hachimandai, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0843, Japan
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Hirofumi Akari, Laboratory of Disease Control, Tsukuba Primate Research Center, National Institute of Biomedical Innovation, 1-1 Hachimandai, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0843, Japan. Tel: +81 29 837 2121; fax: +81 29 837 0218; email:


More than 170 million people worldwide are chronically infected by HCV, which is the causative agent of chronic hepatitis C, cirrhosis, and finally liver cancer. Although animal models of viral hepatitis are a prerequisite for the evaluation of antiviral and vaccine efficacy, the restricted host range of HCV has hampered the development of a suitable small animal model of HCV infection. Use of the chimpanzee, the only animal known to be susceptible to HCV infection, is limited by ethical and financial restrictions. In this regard GBV-B, being closely related to HCV, appears to be a promising non-human surrogate model for the study of HCV infection. This review describes the characteristic of GBV-B infection of New World monkeys, and discusses current issues concerning the GBV-B model and its future directions.

List of Abbreviations: 

alanine aminotransferase


cytotoxic T lymphocytes


GB virus-B


genome equivalents


hepatitis C virus


human immunodeficiency virus type 1


simian immunodeficiency viruses


SIV derived from rhesus macaques


Since HCV was identified as a major causative agent for non-A, non-B hepatitis in 1989 by Choo et al. (1), it has become evident that HCV is disseminated worldwide and is carried by an estimated more than 170 million people (2). In most advanced nations, the prevalence of HCV infection is roughly 1–2% and further dissemination is suppressed. By contrast, among developing countries the number of HCV-infected patients is still increasing due to iatrogenic exposure, including blood transfusion from unscreened donors and reuse or inappropriate sterilization of contaminated medical equipment, and injecting drug use (3). After HCV exposure, about 70% of individuals who exhibit acute infection progress to chronic liver disease, and many of these patients develop hepatic cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (2). Currently, the only treatment available for patients with chronic HCV infections is combination therapy with pegylated interferon and ribavirin. As the standard therapy is effective in only approximately 50% of patients with chronic HCV hepatitis, the other half of affected patients are still threatened by poor prognosis (4). It is therefore urgent to develop more effective therapeutics for HCV infection. At the same time, prophylactic vaccines are indispensable for prevention of further spread of HCV in developing countries, including reduction of the risk to health care workers of occupational transmission.


Research in infectious diseases will never progress without animal models. Because conventional small animals are not susceptible to HCV infection due to its limited host range, development of an effective prophylactic vaccine, as well as unveiling of the molecular mechanism of viral pathogenesis, has been hampered. Nonetheless, decades of struggle have resulted in a number of animal models for HCV infection and hepatitis C.

Recently, a number of rodent models have been developed (for a review of this topic see reference 5). Rodent models, which permit HCV replication and involve transplantation of human hepatocytes, include immunotorelated fetal rat (transplantation of human hepatoma cell line Huh7 into newborn rats after prior injection of the same cells into pregnant females) (6) and immunodeficient mice such as trimera mice (7, 8) and uPA mice (9–11). These rodent models are highly useful for evaluating the efficacy of antiviral drugs and neutralizing monoclonal antibodies. In addition, a number of HCV transgenic mice have been developed. These enable direct characterization of the effects of expression of HCV genes on liver injury (5). These small animal models do not require costly facility for primates as mentioned later. While having a number of merits as mentioned above, these rodent models still have some limitations. For example the former models are not suitable for investigation of the pathogenesis of hepatitis C and the development of effective vaccine strategies, while in the latter models the proteins of interest are usually over-expressed as compared with natural HCV infection, and the integration site of the transgene may have an influence on the outcome of the study.

The chimpanzee model is the most straightforward since this animal can be experimentally infected with HCV. One third of HCV-inoculated chimpanzees develop chronic infection, while infection resolves in the remainder after an acute phase lasting 2–3 months, indicating that the chronicity rate in chimpanzees is somewhat lower than in humans (12). The chimpanzee model has been considered the primary choice for studying the relationship between the virus and host anti-viral immune responses, as well as for evaluating immunopathogenesis and the efficacy of prophylactic vaccination. However, irrespective of its benefits, many obstacles need to be overcome in order to use this model. For example in many countries it is illegal to employ the chimpanzee as an experimental animal, primarily due to ethical, (and secondly to financial), reasons. In fact, in 2004 the Dutch government decided to stop all research with chimpanzees at the biomedical primate research center in Rijswijk, Netherlands. As this was the only primate center in Europe where chimpanzees were used for biomedical research, this decision made chimpanzees unavailable as experimental animals in Europe. It is still possible to employ chimpanzees for biomedical research in some other countries, including the USA. However, the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institute of Health in the USA has recently decided not to continue to breed chimpanzees for research (13). It is estimated that the existing chimpanzees in the National Center for Research Resources will die within 30 years.

AIDS-related research has been one of the major purposes for using chimpanzees. However, due to the reasons mentioned above, as well as the endangered status of chimpanzees, nowadays AIDS scientists mainly make use of macaque monkeys infected with SIV as a non-human primate surrogate AIDS model (14, 15). The macaque/SIV model is useful since SIV is highly related to HIV-1, and induces AIDS-like diseases that are comparable to those of humans infected with HIV-1. Taking this into consideration, an alternative surrogate model which employs New World monkeys infected with GBV-B may be promising for future HCV/hepatitis C research.


Among viruses so far known, GBV-B is the most closely related to HCV. However, due to a lack of epidemiological information as discussed below, GBV-B has been tentatively classified in the Hepacivirus genus of the Flavivirus family. Originally, Deinhardt et al. (16) found that some tamarins (genus Saguinus) developed hepatitis after inoculation with an inoculum obtained from a surgeon with the initials GB who had contracted hepatitis. After 11 passages in tamarins they obtained serum including GB agent(s), and were then able to achieve molecular cloning of GBV-A and GBV-B as flavivirus-like genomes (17) and to demonstrate GBV-B as an agent which could cause hepatitis in tamarins (18). Although it was unclear whether GBV-B originated from the GB inoculum or the tamarins themselves, later animal studies demonstrated that GBV-B is infectious for tamarins but not chimpanzees (19) and reciprocally that HCV is infectious for chimpanzees but not tamarins (20). These findings led to the retrospective conclusion that at least one of the tamarins employed for the in vivo passage study was persistently infected with GBV-B, and therefore GBV-B is probably a virus that originated in tamarins (20). However, GBV-B has not so far been isolated from additional tamarins, probably due to limited epidemiological analyses. Thus the natural host(s) and prevalence of GBV-B are yet to be determined.


Previous data have shown that a number of New World monkeys (parvorder Platyrrhini) including tamarins, the common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) and the owl monkey (Aotus trivirgatus) are susceptible to GBV-B infection, as summarized in Table 1, although in tamarins peak concentrations of viruses in plasma are higher (107–1010 GE/ml) than in other monkeys (105–108 GE/ml) (21–29). In general, in any monkey species viremia persists for 2–3 months and is followed by clearance. GBV-B-infected monkeys with viremia usually develop self-resolving subacute hepatitis, as indicated by increases in the concentrations of serum enzymes such as ALT, gamma-glutamyltranspeptidase, and isocitrate dehydrogenase. Pathologically, degeneration and apoptosis of hepatocytes, as well as disruption and dilation of sinusoids, have been observed in the livers of GBV-B-infected tamarins with higher viremia and ALT activity (29). It is possible that GBV-B-specific CTL may cause the liver damage. However, a recent study reported that CTL are induced at a late stage of subacute GBV-B infection, and are inversely correlated with reduction in viremia (30). Since liver damage is usually found very early (1–2 weeks) after infection, when specific CTL are not observed, it is likely that viral replication in the hepatocytes leads directly to the early onset of cytopathic effects, while lower numbers of CTL may also contribute to cytotoxicity.

Table 1.  Summary of characteristics of acute GBV-B infection in monkeys
Monkeys permissive of experimental infectionTamarins (Genus Saguinus)
Common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus)
Owl monkey (Aotus trivirgatus)
Appearance of viremia1–2 weeks post infection
Peak levels of viremiaTamarins; 107–1010 GE/ml
Marmoset and owl monkey; 105–108 GE/ml
Peak ALT levelsApproximately 200–500 IU/ml
Duration of viremia2–3 months
Timing of seroconversionA couple of weeks before clearance of viremia

The clearance of viremia in the acute phase of GBV-B infection should require an effective antiviral immune response. In particular, in both GBV-B and HCV intrahepatic CTL appear to play a major role in viral clearance (30, 31). In addition, secondary GBV-B infection after clearance of the primary viremia induces a strong T cell response, leading to virtual absence of viremia, indicating that efficient memory is a key to protection from chronic viral infection (30, 32). In pre-immune chimpanzees antibody-mediated depletion of either CD4 or CD8 T lymphocytes affects their ability to control viral replication, resulting in prolonged viremia, demonstrating essential roles for both CD4 and CD8 memory in protection from viral persistence (33, 34).

On the other hand, the significance of humoral immunity in controlling GBV-B replication is still unclear. It is reasonable to assume that neutralizing antibodies also play important roles in the clearance of subacute viremia and protection from viral persistence. In the case of HCV, in one well characterized single-source outbreak of hepatitis C, viral clearance was associated with rapid induction of neutralizing antibodies in the early phase of infection, while chronic HCV infection was characterized by absent or low-titer neutralizing antibodies in this phase. Patients with resolution of infection were shown to exhibit broader cross-neutralizing activity of antibodies in the early phase of infection (35). In one chronic HCV patient who was followed up for 30 years, it has also been shown that HCV continuously escaped the host's immune system by repeated mutational changes, resulting in loss of recognition of the HCV envelope glycoproteins by antibodies (36). The fact that the sequences of envelope glycoprotein and specificity of neutralizing antibody change over time suggests that neutralizing antibodies exert selective pressure on HCV evolution. Thus, although neutralizing antibodies (and/or CTL) are not necessarily capable of controlling chronic viral infection, frequent escape from the antibodies needs so called fitness cost, resulting in the partial suppression of viral loads. Indeed, HCV-infected patients with primary antibody deficiencies have accelerated rates of disease progression (37).

Although features of the subacute phase of GBV-B infection are similar to that of HCV, a major defect of GBV-B infection as a surrogate model for HCV is that it is difficult to chronically infect monkeys. While as many as 70% of humans with HCV infection become chronically infected, only approximately a third of chimpanzees do so (2, 12). By contrast, only a few cases regarding chronic GBV-B infection have been reported so far. The best example was a case of a tamarin persistently infected with GBV-B (24); the monkey exhibited acute mild hepatitis with viremia (peak level; ∼109 GE/ml), which reduced to a set point level (less than 104 GE/ml) at 16 weeks post infection, followed by a gradual increase in viremia which reached >107 GE/ml at 112 weeks post infection, along with a significant ALT increase. However, the viremia suddenly declined thereafter and became undetectable, in association with a reduction in antibody titer, and subsequent in vivo passage of virus obtained from the tamarin failed to reproduce persistent infection in other tamarins (24). In addition, immunosuppression of a GBV-B-infected tamarin by FK506 treatment, or infection of GBV-B with deletion of poly(U) tract in the 3′ UTR, reportedly resulted in relatively long-term persistent infection of GBV-B for up to 46 and 90 weeks, respectively (23, 27). These results indicate that GBV-B may have the potential for establishing chronic infection.

Furthermore, our recent study has demonstrated that among four common marmosets infected with GBV-B derived from a molecular clone pGBB (21), two developed long-term chronic infection for up to three years, with recurrent viremia in which plasma viral RNA levels fluctuated between undetectable and 105 GE/ml, which is equivalent to the case of chimpanzees chronically infected with HCV (Iwasaki et al., manuscript in preparation). Notably, the induction of antiviral antibody response as measured by anti-Core and -NS3 antibodies was delayed in both cases, followed by a gradual increase, and then sustained high antibody titers. This was in contrast with an abrupt and transient increase at the end of periods of subacute viremia in marmosets and tamarins with viral clearance. Whether a delayed antibody response is associated with persistent GBV-B infection remains to be determined.

Taken together, these findings indicate the similarity between HCV and GBV-B in regard to their ability to induce chronic infection, and also shed light on the further potential of GBV-B as a surrogate model for HCV.


Although many questions are still to be addressed, accumulating evidence from extensive studies to date has greatly advanced the usefulness of the GBV-B as a surrogate model for HCV. The GBV-B model may be applicable for evaluating the feasibility and safety of anti-HCV vaccines employing novel viral vectors and gene therapy which creates RNA interference. For example, in a recent pilot study we showed that systemic administration of cationic liposome-encapsulated small interfering RNA to marmosets resulted in efficient regulation of GBV-B replication, indicating the usefulness of the surrogate model for proving the feasibility of RNA interference technology for future clinical application (38). This GBV-B model will also be helpful in identifying the virological and immunological factors which determine whether the outcome is acute resolving or chronic infection. While the GBV-B model appears to be valuable, development of an HCV/GBV-B chimeric virus would greatly expand the utility of the surrogate model, since it would enable us to directly evaluate antiviral vaccines and chemicals for HCV as a preclinical study. Rijnbrand et al. have reported that a chimeric GBV-B with 5′ untranslated region from HCV is infectious and causes hepatitis in tamarins (39). As recently demonstrated by Chevalier et al. (40), this will be a good model for evaluating the potential of small interfering RNA specific to HCV genome for future clinical application.

In regard to this, we may refer to an elegant precedent in the case of the macaques AIDS model. SIVmac is well known to efficiently infect, and result in the development of AIDS in macaques. Furthermore HIV-1, of which only 7% of the entire genome is derived from SIVmac, has been demonstrated to overcome the host range of authentic HIV-1, and to acquire the ability to productively infect macaque cells (41, 42). Instead of endangered chimpanzees, tamarins/marmosets which can be chronically infected with an HCV/GBV-B chimera (hopefully capable of inducing chronic hepatitis) should be the next generation of a promising non-human primate surrogate model for HCV infection, one which is similar to the macaques AIDS model. Whatever animals are used for pre-clinical study, it is important to keep in mind that results obtained from monkey models using either GBV-B or HCV/GBV-B chimera (as well as SIV or HIV/SIV chimera) may not necessarily be applicable to humans, because of potential differences in the molecular structure and/or mechanism by which antivirals and/or viral and host proteins function. Further characterization and understanding of the molecular biology and immunology of virus-host interactions will help in developing novel antiviral strategies.