To investigate the viral replication cycle and genomic heterogeneity of hepatitis C virus (HCV), we established an HCV cultivation system by using a primary hepatocyte culture from patients with chronic hepatitis C. Liver tissue was obtained by needle biopsy or surgery, then hepatocytes were isolated by collagenase digestion. After several weeks, we determined the HCV RNA titre of the cultured cells and supernatant by a competitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method. A significant amount of HCV RNA was observed in the cells and supernatant during cultivation. Negative-strand RNA, regarded as a marker of viral replication, could be detected by a strand-specific reverse transcription PCR method and the HCV core protein could be detected by immunofluorescence microscopy. Many HCV particles released into the supernatant were infectious. In addition, we compared the nucleotide sequences in the E2/NS1 region of pre- and post-cultivation hepatocytes for 8 weeks. At the beginning of the culture period, three major HCV types containing two subtypes were isolated. Following cultivation, the same types were isolated from the cultured hepatocytes in the same ratio as prior to cultivation. We could detect the same clones in this patient's serum, but we observed genetic variability over a 6 month interval. One clone detected throughout the 6 month period mutated extensively in the hypervariable region. These results indicated that HCV can replicate in cultured hepatocytes, and that infectious virions are released into the supernatant. This cultivation system should facilitate the study of HCV genomic heterogeneity, infection and replication.


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