Genomic Surveillance Elucidates HCV 1a Phylodynamics and Molecular Evolution
Hypervariable region-1 (HVR1) from the hepatitis C virus (HCV) envelope protein is thought to be a target for neutralizing Abs. To explore HVR1 recognition by helper T cells, and their role in Ab responses, we attempted to generate helper T cells specific for HVR1 in mice of three MHC types, and with PBMC from HCV-infected HLA-diverse humans. In both species, HVR1 was presented by >1 class II MHC molecule to CD4+ helper T cells and showed surprising interisolate cross-reactivity. The epitope for two DR4+ patients was mapped to a more conserved C-terminal sequence containing a DR4 binding motif, possibly accounting for cross-reactivity. Strikingly, Abs to patients' own HVR1 sequences were found only in patients with T cell responses to HVR1, even though all had Abs to envelope protein, suggesting that induction of Abs to HVR1 depends on helper T cells specific for a sequence proximal to the Ab epitope. Thus, helper T cells specific for HVR1 may be functionally important in inducing neutralizing Abs to HCV. These results may be the first example of "T-B reciprocity," in which proximity of a helper T cell epitope determines Ab epitope specificity, in a human disease setting.