In vitro infection of adult normal human hepatocytes in primary culture has been performed for investigating the replication cycle of hepatitis C virus (HCV) in differentiated cells. Hepatocytes were prepared from liver tissue resected from donors who tested negative for HCV, and inoculation was performed 3 days after plating with 33 HCV serum samples of different virus load and genotype. The presence of intracellular HCV RNA, detected by a strand-specific rTth RT-PCR assay, was used as evidence of infection. A kinetics analysis of HCV replication revealed that intracellular negative-strand RNA appeared at day 1 post-infection with a maximum level at days 3 and 5, followed by a decrease until day 14. At day 5, we estimated that the copy level of viral RNA was amplified at least 15-fold in infected cells. The level of intracellular HCV RNA in response to different serum samples was reproducible from one hepatocyte culture to another, suggesting that there is no inter-individual variability in the susceptibility of hepatocytes to HCV infection. These findings indicate that adult human hepatocytes in primary culture retain their susceptibility to in vitro HCV infection and support HCV RNA replication. This model should represent a valuable tool for the study of initial steps of the HCV replication cycle and for the evaluation of antiviral molecules.


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