Get access

Conservation of hepatitis C virus nonstructural protein 3 amino acid sequence in viral isolates during liver transplantation


Carlos A. Pereira, Instituto Butantan, Laboratório de Imunologia Viral, São Paulo, Brazil. E-mail:


Summary.  As a consequence of selective pressure exerted by the immune response during hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, a high rate of nucleotide mutations in the viral genome is observed which leads to the emergence of viral escape mutants. The aim of this study was to evaluate the evolution of the amino acid (aa) sequence of the HCV nonstructural protein 3 (NS3) in viral isolates after liver transplantation. Six patients with HCV-induced liver disease undergoing liver transplantation (LT) were followed up for sequence analysis. Hepatitis C recurrence was observed in all patients after LT. The rate of synonymous (dS) nucleotide substitutions was much higher than that of nonsynonymous (dN) ones in the NS3 encoding region. The high values of the dS/dN ratios suggest no sustained adaptive evolution selection pressure and, therefore, absence of specific NS3 viral populations. Clinical genotype assignments were supported by phylogenetic analysis. Serial samples from each patient showed lower mean nucleotide genetic distance when compared with samples of the same HCV genotype and subtype. The NS3 samples studied had an N-terminal aa sequence with several differences as compared with reference ones, mainly in genotype 1b-infected patients. After LT, as compared with the sequences before, a few reverted aa substitutions and several established aa substitutions were observed at the N-terminal of NS3. Sites described to be involved in important functions of NS3, notably those of the catalytic triad and zinc binding, remained unaltered in terms of aa sequence. Rare or frequent aa substitutions occurred indiscriminately in different positions. Several cytotoxic T lymphocyte epitopes described for HCV were present in our 1b samples. Nevertheless, the deduced secondary structure of the NS3 protease showed a few alterations in samples from genotype 3a patients, but none were seen in 1b cases. Our data, obtained from patients under important selective pressure during LT, show that the NS3 protease remains well conserved, mainly in HCV 3a patients. It reinforces its potential use as an antigenic candidate for further studies aiming at the development of a protective immune response.