The immunogenicity of variable regions of hepatitis C virus (HCV) proteins was studied by ELISA by using 543 synthetic peptides from 120 variable regions and 90 sera from HCV-infected patients. Some regions from certain genotypes were less immunogenic, or even non-immunogenic, compared with their equivalents in other genotypes. However, the mean recognition of all peptides from genotypes 1a, 1b and 3 by sera infected with genotypes 1a, 1b and 3, respectively, showed no significant differences, suggesting a similar overall immunogenicity of variable regions from these genotypes. Proteins NS4a, NS4b and NS5a were found to be the most immunogenic. Recognition of individual peptides by the sera of infected patients showed that the humoral response against HCV is patient-dependent. The work shows that 15-mer peptides may encompass several B-cell epitopes. These epitopes may lie in slightly different positions in different genotypes. Thirty-one percent of the 543 peptides were recognized by some of the 35 healthy donors. This may be a reflection of the large number of antigens to which they had been exposed, but it may also reflect a strategy of HCV to respond to immune pressure. After selection and modification, a set of 40 peptides was used to assess genotypes 1a, 1b, 1, 2 and 3 in the sera of HCV-infected patients, with sensitivities of 34.1, 48.5, 68.8, 58.3 and 48.9% and specificities of 100, 99.1, 97.1, 99.5 and 99%, respectively. The overall sensitivity and specificity for the assessment of genotypes 1, 2 and 3 were 64 and 98%, respectively.


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