Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a major cause of chronic viral hepatitis. Development of anti-viral strategies has been hampered by the lack of efficient cell systems to propagate HCV in vitro. To establish a long-term culture system, we tested human hepatoma (HuH7, HepG2) and porcine non-hepatoma (PK15, STE) cell lines, as well as several culture and infection conditions. As a marker for virus replication, minus-strand HCV RNA in infected cells was detected by an enhanced detection system using nested RT-PCR followed by hybridization analysis. Short-term efficiency of HCV infection (10 days) was slightly increased by addition of polyethylene glycol (PEG) and/or dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to culture media during inoculation of HuH7, PK15 and STE cells, but no augmentation in long-term culture was achieved, suggesting enhanced attachment of HCV to cells rather than more efficient infection. A stabilizing effect on HCV propagation was observed for 50 days in a serum-free medium with stimulation of the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor expression by lovastatin. Using partially serum-free culture conditions, long-term persistence of HCV in cells and release of virions into supernatant was achieved for up to 130 days. Infectivity of released virions in supernatants after long-term culturing (day 30-80) was shown by successful infection of fresh cells. In conclusion, supplementation with PEG, DMSO and lovastatin during inoculation did not enhance virus replication substantially, but continued stimulation of LDL-receptor expression resulted in infections which persisted for over 4 months. These data support the hypothesis of an LDL-receptor mediated uptake of HCV into cells in vitro.


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