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1.  Molecular Characterization of HIV-1 Subtype C gp-120 Regions Potentially Involved in Virus Adaptive Mechanisms 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(4):e95183.
The role of variable regions of HIV-1 gp120 in immune escape of HIV has been investigated. However, there is scant information on how conserved gp120 regions contribute to virus escaping. Here we have studied how molecular sequence characteristics of conserved C3, C4 and V3 regions of clade C HIV-1 gp120 that are involved in HIV entry and are target of the immune response, are modulated during the disease course. We found an increase of “shifting” putative N-glycosylation sites (PNGSs) in the α2 helix (in C3) and in C4 and an increase of sites under positive selection pressure in the α2 helix during the chronic stage of disease. These sites are close to CD4 and to co-receptor binding sites. We also found a negative correlation between electric charges of C3 and V4 during the late stage of disease counteracted by a positive correlation of electric charges of α2 helix and V5 during the same stage. These data allow us to hypothesize possible mechanisms of virus escape involving constant and variable regions of gp120. In particular, new mutations, including new PNGSs occurring near the CD4 and CCR5 binding sites could potentially affect receptor binding affinity and shield the virus from the immune response.
PMCID: PMC4005737  PMID: 24788065
2.  Molecular Epidemiology of HIV Type 1 CRF02_AG in Cameroon and African Patients Living in Italy 
AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses  2011;27(11):1173-1182.
HIV-1 CRF02_AG accounts for >50% of infected individuals in Cameroon. CRF02_AG prevalence has been increasing both in Africa and Europe, particularly in Italy because of migrations from the sub-Saharan region. This study investigated the molecular epidemiology of CRF02_AG in Cameroon by employing Bayesian phylodynamics and analyzed the relationship between HIV-1 CRF02_AG isolates circulating in Italy and those prevalent in Africa to understand the link between the two epidemics. Among 291 Cameroonian reverse transcriptase sequences analyzed, about 70% clustered within three distinct clades, two of which shared a most recent common ancestor, all related to sequences from Western Africa. The major Cameroonian clades emerged during the mid-1970s and slowly spread during the next 30 years. Little or no geographic structure was detected within these clades. One of the major driving forces of the epidemic was likely the high accessibility between locations in Southern Cameroon contributing to the mobility of the population. The remaining Cameroonian sequences and the new strains isolated from Italian patients were interspersed mainly within West and Central African sequences in the tree, indicating a continuous exchange of CRF02_AG viral strains between Cameroon and other African countries, as well as multiple independent introductions in the Italian population. The evaluation of the spread of CRF02_AG may provide significant insight about the future dynamics of the Italian and European epidemic.
PMCID: PMC3206741  PMID: 21453131
3.  Spatial and Temporal Dynamics of Hepatitis B Virus D Genotype in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e37198.
Hepatitis B virus genotype D can be found in many parts of the world and is the most prevalent strain in south-eastern Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East, and the Indian sub-continent. The epidemiological history of the D genotype and its subgenotypes is still obscure because of the scarcity of appropriate studies. We retrieved from public databases a total of 312 gene P sequences of HBV genotype D isolated in various countries throughout the world, and reconstructed the spatio-temporal evolutionary dynamics of the HBV-D epidemic using a Bayesian framework.
The phylogeographical analysis showed that India had the highest posterior probability of being the location of the tree root, whereas central Asia was the most probable location of the common ancestor of subgenotypes D1–D3. HBV-D5 (identified in native Indian populations) diverged from the tree root earlier than D1–D3. The time of the most recent common ancestor (tMRCA) of the tree root was 128 years ago, which suggests that the common ancestor of the currently circulating subgenotypes existed in the second half of the XIX century. The mean tMRCA of subgenotypes D1–D3 was between the 1940s and the 1950–60s. On the basis of our phylogeographic reconstruction, it seems that HBV-D reached the Mediterranean area in the middle of the XX century by means of at least two routes: the first pathway (mainly due to the spread of subgenotype D1) crossing the Middle East and reaching north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, and the second pathway (closely associated with D2) that crossed the former Soviet Union and reached eastern Europe and the Mediterranean through Albania. We hypothesise that the main route of dispersion of genotype D was the unsafe use of injections and drug addiction.
PMCID: PMC3360700  PMID: 22662136
4.  A computational approach to identify point mutations associated with occult hepatitis B: significant mutations affect coding regions but not regulative elements of HBV 
Virology Journal  2011;8:394.
Occult Hepatitis B Infection (OBI) is characterized by absence of serum HBsAg and persistence of HBV-DNA in liver tissue, with low to undetectable serum HBV-DNA. The mechanisms underlying OBI remain to be clarified. To evaluate if specific point mutations of HBV genome may be associated with OBI, we applied an approach based on bioinformatics analysis of complete genome HBV sequences. In addition, the feasibility of bioinformatics prediction models to classify HBV infections into OBI and non-OBI by molecular data was evaluated.
41 OBI and 162 non-OBI complete genome sequences were retrieved from GenBank, aligned and subjected to univariable analysis including statistical evaluation. Their S coding region was analyzed for Stop codon mutations too, while S amino acid variability could be evaluated for genotype D only, due to the too small number of available complete genome OBI sequences from other genotypes.
Prediction models were derived by multivariable analysis using Logistic Regression, Rule Induction and Random Forest approaches, with extra-sample error estimation by Multiple ten-fold Cross-Validation (MCV). Models were compared by t-test on the Area Under the Receiver Operating Characteristic curve (AUC) distributions obtained from the MCV runs for each model against the best-performing model.
Variations in seven nucleotide positions were significantly associated with OBI, and occurred in 11 out of 41 OBI sequences (26.8%): likely, other mutations did not reach statistical significance due to the small size of OBI dataset. All variations affected at least one HBV coding region, but none of them mapped to regulative elements. All viral proteins, with the only exception of the X, were affected. Stop codons in the S, that might account for absence of serum HBsAg, were not significantly enriched in OBI sequences. In genotype D, amino acid variability in the S was higher in OBI than non-OBI, particularly in the immunodominant region. A Random Forest prediction model showed the best performance, but all models were not satisfactory in terms of specificity, due to the small sample size of OBIs; however results are promising in the perspective of a broader dataset of complete genome OBI sequences.
Data suggest that point mutations rarely occur in regulative elements of HBV, if ever, and contribute to OBI by affecting different viral proteins, suggesting heterogeneous mechanisms may be responsible for OBI, including, at least in genotype D, an escape mutation mechanism due to imperfect immune control. It appears possible to derive prediction models based on molecular data when a larger set of complete genome OBI sequences will become available.
PMCID: PMC3170640  PMID: 21824402
Hepatitis B Virus; occult infection; bioinformatics

Results 1-4 (4)