The ability of passage in HeLa cells to attenuate flaviviruses was investigated for three different strains of the mosquito-borne West Nile (WN) virus and two tick-borne viruses, louping-ill and Langat. One strain of WN virus, Sarawak, was attenuated 4000-fold for adult mice by intraperitoneal or intranasal challenge after six HeLa passages. The HeLa-passaged virus was also found to be antigenically different and temperature-sensitive in its growth characteristics compared with the parent. After six HeLa cell passages the Egypt 101 and Smithburn strains of WN virus lost their ability to infect monkey kidney cells and no longer killed adult mice, although inoculated animals became sick for several days. In contrast, two tick-borne flaviviruses remained as virulent for mice after six HeLa passages as the parent non-HeLa-passaged virus. Neither of the tick-borne viruses exhibited characteristics associated with temperature sensitivity. The results, therefore, indicate that the mosquito-borne, but not tick-borne, flaviviruses can be attenuated by very few passages in HeLa cells. This observation may provide a model system with which to analyse the molecular basis of attenuation and/or virulence of mosquito-borne flaviviruses.


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