Detection and quantification of hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA is integral to diagnostic and therapeutic regimens. All molecular assays target the viral 5′-noncoding region (5′-NCR), and all show genotype-dependent variation of sensitivities and viral load results. Non-western HCV genotypes have been under-represented in evaluation studies. An alternative diagnostic target region within the HCV genome could facilitate a new generation of assays.
Methods and Findings
In this study we determined by de novo sequencing that the 3′-X-tail element, characterized significantly later than the rest of the genome, is highly conserved across genotypes. To prove its clinical utility as a molecular diagnostic target, a prototype qualitative and quantitative test was developed and evaluated multicentrically on a large and complete panel of 725 clinical plasma samples, covering HCV genotypes 1–6, from four continents (Germany, UK, Brazil, South Africa, Singapore). To our knowledge, this is the most diversified and comprehensive panel of clinical and genotype specimens used in HCV nucleic acid testing (NAT) validation to date. The lower limit of detection (LOD) was 18.4 IU/ml (95% confidence interval, 15.3–24.1 IU/ml), suggesting applicability in donor blood screening. The upper LOD exceeded 10−9 IU/ml, facilitating viral load monitoring within a wide dynamic range. In 598 genotyped samples, quantified by Bayer VERSANT 3.0 branched DNA (bDNA), X-tail-based viral loads were highly concordant with bDNA for all genotypes. Correlation coefficients between bDNA and X-tail NAT, for genotypes 1–6, were: 0.92, 0.85, 0.95, 0.91, 0.95, and 0.96, respectively; X-tail-based viral loads deviated by more than 0.5 log10 from 5′-NCR-based viral loads in only 12% of samples (maximum deviation, 0.85 log10). The successful introduction of X-tail NAT in a Brazilian laboratory confirmed the practical stability and robustness of the X-tail-based protocol. The assay was implemented at low reaction costs (US$8.70 per sample), short turnover times (2.5 h for up to 96 samples), and without technical difficulties.
This study indicates a way to fundamentally improve HCV viral load monitoring and infection screening. Our prototype assay can serve as a template for a new generation of viral load assays. Additionally, to our knowledge this study provides the first open protocol to permit industry-grade HCV detection and quantification in resource-limited settings.
Christian Drosten and colleagues develop, validate, and make openly available a prototype hepatitis C virus assay based on the conserved 3' X-tail element, with potential for clinical use in developing countries.
About 3% of the world's population (170 million people) harbor long-term (chronic) infections with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and about 3–4 million people are newly infected with this virus every year. HCV—a leading cause of chronic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)—is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person. Globally, the main routes of transmission are the use of unscreened blood for transfusions and the reuse of inadequately sterilized medical instruments, including needles. In affluent countries, where donated blood is routinely screened for the presence of HCV, most transmission is through needle sharing among drug users. The risk of sexual and mother-to-child transmission of HCV is low. Although HCV infection occasionally causes an acute (short-lived) illness characterized by tiredness and jaundice (yellow eyes and skin), most newly infected people progress to a symptom-free, chronic infection that can eventually cause liver cirrhosis (scarring) and liver cancer. HCV infections can be treated with a combination of two drugs called interferon and ribavirin, but these drugs are expensive and are ineffective in many patients.
Why Was This Study Done?
An effective way to limit the global spread of HCV might be to introduce routine screening of the blood that is used for transfusions in developing countries. In developed countries, HCV screening of blood donors use expensive, commercial “RT-PCR” assays to detect small amounts of HCV ribonucleic acid (RNA; HCV stores the information it needs to replicate itself—its genome—as a sequence of “ribonucleotides”). All the current HCV assays, which can also quantify the amount of viral RNA in the blood (the viral load) during treatment, detect a target sequence in the viral genome called the 5′-noncoding region (5′-NCR). However, there are several different HCV “genotypes” (strains). These genotypes vary in their geographical distribution and, even though the 5′-NCR sequence is very similar (highly conserved) in the common genotypes (HCV genotypes 1–6), the existing assays do not detect all the variants equally well. This shortcoming, together with their high cost, means that 5′-NCR RT-PCR assays are not ideal for use in many developing countries. In this study, the researchers identify an alternative diagnostic target sequence in the HCV genome—the 3′-X-tail element—and ask whether this sequence can be used to develop a new generation of tests for HCV infection that might be more appropriate for use in developing countries.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers determined the RNA sequence of the 3′-X-tail element in reference samples of the major HCV genotypes and showed that this region of the HCV genome is as highly conserved as the 5′-NCR. They then developed a prototype X-tail RT-PCR assay and tested its ability to detect small amounts of HCV and to measure viral load in genotype reference samples and in a large panel of HCV-infected blood samples collected in Germany, the UK, Brazil, South Africa, and Singapore. The new assay detected low levels of HCV RNA in all of the genotype reference samples and was also able to quantify high RNA concentrations. The viral load estimates it provided for the clinical samples agreed well with those obtained using a commercial assay irrespective of the sample's HCV genotype. Finally, the X-tail RT-PCR assay gave similar results to a standard assay at a fraction of the cost when used to measure viral loads in a Brazilian laboratory in an independent group of 127 patient samples collected in Brazil.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that the HCV 3′-X-tail element could provide an alternative target for screening blood samples for HCV infection and for monitoring viral loads during treatment, irrespective of HCV genotype. In addition, they suggest that X-tail RT-PCR assays may be stable and robust enough for use in laboratories in emerging countries. Overall, these findings should stimulate the development of a new generation of clinical HCV assays that, because the protocol used in the X-tail assay is freely available, could improve blood safety in developing countries by providing a cheap and effective alternative to existing proprietary HCV assays.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000031.
The World Health Organization has a fact sheet about hepatitis C (in English and French)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on hepatitis C for the public and for health professionals (information is also available in Spanish)
The US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases provides basic information on hepatitis C (in English and Spanish)
The MedlinePlus Encyclopedia has a page on hepatitis C; MedlinePlus also provides links to further information on hepatitis C (in English and Spanish)