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Evidence for action of ribavirin through the hepatitis C virus RNA polymerase


John Tavis, Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, 1100 S. Grand Blvd., St Louis, MO 63104, USA. E-mail:


Summary.  Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections are treated with interferon α plus ribavirin, but it is unknown how ribavirin works against HCV. Ribavirin is a guanosine analogue that can be a substrate for the viral RNA polymerase. HCV is genetically variable, and this genetic variation could affect the polymerase’s use of ribavirin triphosphate. Thirteen patients infected with HCV who failed interferon α monotherapy and were retreated with interferon α plus ribavirin were identified; seven were responders and six were nonresponders to combination therapy. The consensus sequences encoding the 13 polymerases plus seven sequences from treatment-naive controls were determined. The responder sequences were more genetically variable than the nonresponders and controls, the amino acid variations unique to responders had lower BLOSUM90 scores than variations in nonresponders and controls, and the amino acid variations correlated with response to therapy clustered around the RNA-binding channel of the polymerase. These data imply that that the responder enzymes were probably more functionally variable than the nonresponder enzymes. Enzymatic activity was measured for 10 recombinant polymerases; RNA synthesis activity varied by over sevenfold and polymerases from two of the responders used GTP much better than UTP, but technical limitations prevented direct measurement of ribavirin triphosphate use. Because response to combination therapy in these patients was primarily due to addition of ribavirin to the treatment regimen, these data imply that genetic variation in the polymerase may have affected the efficiency of ribavirin incorporation into the viral genome and hence may have modulated ribavirin’s efficacy against HCV.