Background: The hepatitis C virus (HCV) effectively establishes persistent infection in human livers. The non-structural (NS) 3/4A complex participate in this process by cleavage of IFN-β promoter stimulator-1 (IPS-1; also termed Cardif/MAVS/VISA), which inhibits responses to double stranded (ds) RNA. However, it is not known whether this effect extends beyond innate responses.
Aims: To test if HCV NS3/4A affect innate and adaptive immune responses in vivo.
Methods: NS3 levels were semi-quantified in human liver biopsies, transfected cells, and in transgenic (Tg) mouse livers by western blot. The effect of NS3/4A on dsRNA-mediated signaling and on integrity of IPS-1 was analyzed using in vitro translation, transfected cells and Tg mice. Cytotoxic T cell (CTL)-mediated clearance of transiently Firefly luciferase (FLuc)- and/or NS3/4A-Tg hepatocytes was determined using in vivo imaging and western blot.
Results: NS3-protein levels were at somewhat comparable range (0,1 - 49 μg/g tissue) in infected human livers and Tg mouse livers. Importantly, these levels of NS3/4A reduced murine innate responses to synthetic dsRNA in vivo, supporting that this occurs also in infected humans. The likely explanation for this was the NS3/4A-mediated cleavage of mouse IPS-1, albeit less efficiently than human IPS-1. Despite this were FLuc- and/or NS3/4A-expressing murine hepatocytes effectively eliminated by hepatic CTLs, utilizing the classical molecules for virus-infected cell lysis, including CD8, IFN-γ, perforin, and FasL.
Conclusions: Although HCV NS3/4A inhibits the innate immunity, this does not prevent CTL-mediated clearance of NS3/4A-expressing hepatocytes in vivo. Thus, other HCV proteins are most likely responsible for interfering with the adaptive immunity.