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1.  Hepatitis C: A mouse at the end of the tunnel 
Cell Research  2013;23(12):1343-1344.
Since its discovery in 1989, researchers strive after a small animal model for Hepatitis C virus infection, so far with very limited success. A study recently published in Nature now for the first time reports the recapitulation of the complete life cycle of this virus in inbred mice with a functional adaptive immune system.
PMCID: PMC3847570  PMID: 24060850
2.  Analysis of hepatitis C virus resistance to Silibinin in vitro and in vivo points to a novel mechanism involving nonstructural protein 4B 
Hepatology (Baltimore, Md.)  2013;57(3):953-963.
Intravenous silibinin (SIL) is an approved therapeutic that has recently been applied to patients with chronic hepatitis C, successfully clearing hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in some patients even in monotherapy. Previous studies suggested multiple antiviral mechanisms of SIL, however, the dominant mode of action has not been determined. We first analyzed the impact of SIL on replication of subgenomic replicons from different HCV genotypes in vitro and found a strong inhibition of RNA replication for genotype 1a and genotype 1b. In contrast, RNA replication and infection of genotype 2a were minimally affected by SIL. To identify the viral target of SIL we analyzed resistance to SIL in vitro and in vivo. Selection for drug resistance in cell culture identified a mutation in HCV nonstructural protein (NS) 4B conferring partial resistance to SIL. This was corroborated by sequence analyses of HCV from a liver transplant recipient experiencing viral breakthrough under SIL monotherapy. Again, we identified distinct mutations affecting highly conserved amino acid residues within NS4B, which mediated phenotypic SIL resistance also in vitro. Analyses of chimeric viral genomes suggest that SIL might target an interaction between NS4B and NS3/4A. Ultrastructural studies revealed changes in the morphology of viral membrane alterations upon SIL treatment of a susceptible genotype 1b isolate, but not of a resistant NS4B mutant or genotype 2a, indicating that SIL might interfere with the formation of HCV replication sites.
Mutations conferring partial resistance to SIL treatment in vivo and in cell culture argue for a mechanism involving NS4B. This novel mode of action renders SIL an attractive candidate for combination therapies with other directly acting antiviral drugs, particularly in difficult-to-treat patient cohorts.
PMCID: PMC3593759  PMID: 23322644
HCV; NS4B; therapy; antiviral; Legalon-SIL; Silibinin
3.  Robust RNAi enhancement via human Argonaute-2 overexpression from plasmids, viral vectors and cell lines 
Nucleic Acids Research  2013;41(21):e199.
As the only mammalian Argonaute protein capable of directly cleaving mRNAs in a small RNA-guided manner, Argonaute-2 (Ago2) is a keyplayer in RNA interference (RNAi) silencing via small interfering (si) or short hairpin (sh) RNAs. It is also a rate-limiting factor whose saturation by si/shRNAs limits RNAi efficiency and causes numerous adverse side effects. Here, we report a set of versatile tools and widely applicable strategies for transient or stable Ago2 co-expression, which overcome these concerns. Specifically, we engineered plasmids and viral vectors to co-encode a codon-optimized human Ago2 cDNA along with custom shRNAs. Furthermore, we stably integrated this Ago2 cDNA into a panel of standard human cell lines via plasmid transfection or lentiviral transduction. Using various endo- or exogenous targets, we demonstrate the potential of all three strategies to boost mRNA silencing efficiencies in cell culture by up to 10-fold, and to facilitate combinatorial knockdowns. Importantly, these robust improvements were reflected by augmented RNAi phenotypes and accompanied by reduced off-targeting effects. We moreover show that Ago2/shRNA-co-encoding vectors can enhance and prolong transgene silencing in livers of adult mice, while concurrently alleviating hepatotoxicity. Our customizable reagents and avenues should broadly improve future in vitro and in vivo RNAi experiments in mammalian systems.
PMCID: PMC3834839  PMID: 24049077
4.  Replication Vesicles are Load- and Choke-Points in the Hepatitis C Virus Lifecycle 
PLoS Pathogens  2013;9(8):e1003561.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection develops into chronicity in 80% of all patients, characterized by persistent low-level replication. To understand how the virus establishes its tightly controlled intracellular RNA replication cycle, we developed the first detailed mathematical model of the initial dynamic phase of the intracellular HCV RNA replication. We therefore quantitatively measured viral RNA and protein translation upon synchronous delivery of viral genomes to host cells, and thoroughly validated the model using additional, independent experiments. Model analysis was used to predict the efficacy of different classes of inhibitors and identified sensitive substeps of replication that could be targeted by current and future therapeutics. A protective replication compartment proved to be essential for sustained RNA replication, balancing translation versus replication and thus effectively limiting RNA amplification. The model predicts that host factors involved in the formation of this compartment determine cellular permissiveness to HCV replication. In gene expression profiling, we identified several key processes potentially determining cellular HCV replication efficiency.
Author Summary
Hepatitis C is a severe disease and a prime cause for liver transplantation. Up to 3% of the world's population are chronically infected with its causative agent, the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). This capacity to establish long (decades) lasting persistent infection sets HCV apart from other plus-strand RNA viruses typically causing acute, self-limiting infections. A prerequisite for its capacity to persist is HCV's complex and tightly regulated intracellular replication strategy. In this study, we therefore wanted to develop a comprehensive understanding of the molecular processes governing HCV RNA replication in order to pinpoint the most vulnerable substeps in the viral life cycle. For that purpose, we used a combination of biological experiments and mathematical modeling. Using the model to study HCV's replication strategy, we recognized diverse but crucial roles for the membraneous replication compartment of HCV in regulating RNA amplification. We further predict the existence of an essential limiting host factor (or function) required for establishing active RNA replication and thereby determining cellular permissiveness for HCV. Our model also proved valuable to understand and predict the effects of pharmacological inhibitors of HCV and might be a solid basis for the development of similar models for other plus-strand RNA viruses.
PMCID: PMC3749965  PMID: 23990783
5.  HLA-B27 Selects for Rare Escape Mutations that Significantly Impair Hepatitis C Virus Replication and Require Compensatory Mutations 
Hepatology (Baltimore, Md.)  2011;54(4):1157-1166.
HLA-B27 is associated with spontaneous viral clearance in hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. Viral escape within the immunodominant HLA-B27 restricted HCV-specific CD8+ T cell epitope NS5B2841-2849 (ARMILMTHF) has been shown to be limited by viral fitness costs as well as broad T cell cross-recognition, suggesting a potential mechanism of protection by HLA-B27. Here, we studied the subdominant HLA-B27 restricted epitope NS5B2936-2944 (GRAAICGKY) in order to further define the mechanisms of protection by HLA-B27. We identified a unique pattern of escape mutations within this epitope in a large cohort of HCV genotype 1a infected patients. The predominant escape mutations represented conservative substitutions at the main HLA-B27 anchor residue or a T cell receptor contact site, neither of which impaired viral replication capacity as assessed in a subgenomic HCV replicon system. In contrast, however, in a subset of HLA-B27+ subjects rare escape mutations arose at the HLA-B27 anchor residue R2937, which nearly abolished viral replication. Notably, these rare mutations only occurred in conjunction with the selection of two equally rare, and structurally proximal, upstream mutations. Co-expression of these upstream mutations with the rare escape mutations dramatically restored viral replication capacity from <5% to ≥70% of wild-type levels.
The selection of rare CTL escape mutations in this HLA-B27 restricted epitope dramatically impairs viral replicative fitness unless properly compensated. These data support a role for the targeting of highly-constrained regions by HLA-B27 in its ability to assert immune control of HCV and other highly variable pathogens.
PMCID: PMC3201753  PMID: 22006856
Hepatitis C virus; T cell response; viral escape; HLA-B27; viral fitness
6.  Normalizing for individual cell population context in the analysis of high-content cellular screens 
BMC Bioinformatics  2011;12:485.
High-content, high-throughput RNA interference (RNAi) offers unprecedented possibilities to elucidate gene function and involvement in biological processes. Microscopy based screening allows phenotypic observations at the level of individual cells. It was recently shown that a cell's population context significantly influences results. However, standard analysis methods for cellular screens do not currently take individual cell data into account unless this is important for the phenotype of interest, i.e. when studying cell morphology.
We present a method that normalizes and statistically scores microscopy based RNAi screens, exploiting individual cell information of hundreds of cells per knockdown. Each cell's individual population context is employed in normalization. We present results on two infection screens for hepatitis C and dengue virus, both showing considerable effects on observed phenotypes due to population context. In addition, we show on a non-virus screen that these effects can be found also in RNAi data in the absence of any virus. Using our approach to normalize against these effects we achieve improved performance in comparison to an analysis without this normalization and hit scoring strategy. Furthermore, our approach results in the identification of considerably more significantly enriched pathways in hepatitis C virus replication than using a standard analysis approach.
Using a cell-based analysis and normalization for population context, we achieve improved sensitivity and specificity not only on a individual protein level, but especially also on a pathway level. This leads to the identification of new host dependency factors of the hepatitis C and dengue viruses and higher reproducibility of results.
PMCID: PMC3259109  PMID: 22185194
7.  Role of Annexin A2 in the Production of Infectious Hepatitis C Virus Particles▿  
Journal of Virology  2010;84(11):5775-5789.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is an important human pathogen affecting 170 million chronically infected individuals. In search for cellular proteins involved in HCV replication, we have developed a purification strategy for viral replication complexes and identified annexin A2 (ANXA2) as an associated host factor. ANXA2 colocalized with viral nonstructural proteins in cells harboring genotype 1 or 2 replicons as well as in infected cells. In contrast, we found no obvious colocalization of ANXA2 with replication sites of other positive-strand RNA viruses. The silencing of ANXA2 expression showed no effect on viral RNA replication but resulted in a significant reduction of extra- and intracellular virus titers. Therefore, it seems likely that ANXA2 plays a role in HCV assembly rather than in genome replication or virion release. Colocalization studies with individually expressed HCV nonstructural proteins indicated that NS5A specifically recruits ANXA2, probably by an indirect mechanism. By the deletion of individual NS5A subdomains, we identified domain III (DIII) as being responsible for ANXA2 recruitment. These data identify ANXA2 as a novel host factor contributing, with NS5A, to the formation of infectious HCV particles.
PMCID: PMC2876593  PMID: 20335258
8.  Identification of Determinants Involved in Initiation of Hepatitis C Virus RNA Synthesis by Using Intergenotypic Replicase Chimeras▿  
Journal of Virology  2007;81(10):5270-5283.
The 5′ nontranslated region (NTR) and the X tail in the 3′ NTR are the least variable parts of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) genome and play an important role in the initiation of RNA synthesis. By using subgenomic replicons of the HCV isolates Con1 (genotype 1) and JFH1 (genotype 2), we characterized the genotype specificities of the replication signals contained in the NTRs. The replacement of the JFH1 5′ NTR and X tail with the corresponding Con1 sequence resulted in a significant decrease in replication efficiency. Exchange of the X tail specifically reduced negative-strand synthesis, whereas substitution of the 5′ NTR impaired the generation of progeny positive strands. In search for the proteins involved in the recognition of genotype-specific initiation signals, we analyzed recombinant nonstructural protein 5B (NS5B) RNA polymerases of both isolates and found some genotype-specific template preference for the 3′ end of positive-strand RNA in vitro. To further address genotype specificity, we constructed a series of intergenotypic replicon chimeras. When combining NS3 to NS5A of Con1 with NS5B of JFH1, we observed more-efficient replication with the genotype 2a X tail, indicating that NS5B recognizes genotype-specific signals in this region. In contrast, a combination of the NS3 helicase with NS5A and NS5B was required to confer genotype specificity to the 5′ NTR. These results present the first genetic evidence for an interaction between helicase, NS5A, and NS5B required for the initiation of RNA synthesis and provide a system for the specific analysis of HCV positive- and negative-strand syntheses.
PMCID: PMC1900214  PMID: 17344294

Results 1-8 (8)