Background & Aims: In order to design an effective vaccine against hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, it is necessary to understand immune protection. A number of broadly reactive neutralizing antibodies have been isolated from B cells of HCV-infected patients. However, it remains unclear whether B cells producing such antibodies contribute to HCV clearance and long-term immune protection against HCV. Methods: We analysed the B cell repertoire of 13 injecting drug users from the Amsterdam Cohort Study, who were followed up for a median of 17.5 years after primary infection. Individuals were classified into 2 groups based on the outcome of HCV infection: 5 who became chronically infected either after primary infection or after reinfection, and 8 who were HCV RNA negative following spontaneous clearance of ≥1 HCV infection(s). From each individual, 10,000 CD27+IgG+B cells, collected 0.75 year after HCV infection, were cultured to characterize the antibody repertoire. Results: Using a multiplex flow cytometry-based assay to study the antibody binding to E1E2 from genotype 1 to 6, we found that a high frequency of cross-genotype antibodies was associated with spontaneous clearance of 1 or multiple infections (p = 0.03). Epitope specificity of these cross-genotype antibodies was determined by alanine mutant scanning in 4 individuals who were HCV RNA negative following spontaneous clearance of 1 or multiple infections. Interestingly, the cross-genotype antibodies were mainly antigenic region 3 (AR3)-specific and showed cross-neutralizing activity against HCV. In addition to AR3 antibodies, 3 individuals developed antibodies recognizing antigenic region 4, of which 1 monoclonal antibody showed cross-neutralizing capacity. Conclusions: Together, these data suggest that a strong B cell response producing cross-genotype and neutralizing antibodies, especially targeting AR3, contributes to HCV clearance and long-term immune protection against HCV. Lay summary: Although effective treatments against hepatitis C virus (HCV) are available, 500,000 people die from liver disease caused by HCV each year and approximately 1.75 million people are newly infected. This could be prevented by a vaccine. To design a vaccine against HCV, more insight into the role of antibodies in the protection against HCV infection is needed. In a cohort of injecting drug users, we found that antibodies interfering with virus cell entry, and recognizing multiple HCV genotypes, conferred long-term protection against chronic HCV infection.
Merat, S. J., Bru, C., van de Berg, D., Molenkamp, R., Tarr, A. W., Koekkoek, S., ... Schinkel, J. (2019). Cross-genotype AR3-specific neutralizing antibodies confer long-term protection in injecting drug users after HCV clearance
. Journal of Hepatology
(1), 14-24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhep.2019.02.013