The transforming genes E6 and E7 of human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16 and other HPV types are expressed from a bicistronic mRNA with a characteristic spacing of 3 to 6 bp between the termination codon of E6 and the initiation codon of E7. Plasmid pSP64E6E7 which contains the reading frames of both E6 and E7 was constructed in order to study the expression of both proteins in a coupled transcription/rabbit reticulocyte translation system. Both E6 and E7 proteins were expressed simultaneously. This translation could be interfered with by antisense oligonucleotides corresponding to various regions of the transcript. Antisense oligonucleotides targeted at sequences flanking either side of the translation initiation codon of the E6 open reading frame were effective in inhibiting the synthesis of both proteins, whereas oligonucleotides complementary to the coding regions downstream of the first start codon showed either a considerably reduced effect or none at all. In particular, there was limited inhibition of E7 translation by antisense oligonucleotides flanking the translation start region of the E7 gene. In the presence of RNase H, it was possible to selectively inhibit the synthesis of either E6 or E7 by several gene-internal antisense oligonucleotides. We conclude that HPV16 E6-E7 bicistronic mRNA is fully functional and that both proteins are translated with equal efficiency via the scanning mechanisms with reinitiation at the second open reading frame. In addition, both AE6 and AE7 may have therapeutical potential as they are capable of inhibiting the proliferation of CaSki cells which contain the HPV16 genome.


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