Development of Specific Antibodies to an ARF Protein in Treated Patients with Chronic HCV Infection
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) F protein is a recently described, frameshift product of HCV core encoding sequence with unknown biological function. In this study we sought to characterize the prevalence of specific anti-F antibodies in patients with chronic HCV infection and to analyze the anti-F antibody profile before, during, and after antiviral treatment in order to gain a better understanding of the role of F protein in HCV pathogenesis. Serum samples were collected from 44 patients with chronic HCV infection and from 19 healthy controls. Consecutive samples from 27 patients taken before, during, and after treatment with antiviral therapy. The F and the core proteins were cloned from the HCV genome. The recombinant proteins were expressed in Escherichia coli and affinity purified. A sensitive and specific enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay was developed to assess the prevalence of anti-F antibodies. Eighty-nine percent of chronic HCV patients had evidence of anti-F antibodies, and 95% of them had anti-core antibodies. No correlation of anti-F antibodies was found with response to treatment, genotype, or seroconversion. We conclude that the F protein elicits specific antibodies in most individuals chronically infected with HCV with no correlation with response to treatment. Our results confirm the expression of F protein during natural HCV infection.