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Research Article

Detection, semiquantitation, and genetic variation in hepatitis C virus sequences amplified from the plasma of blood donors with elevated alanine aminotransferase.

P P Ulrich, J M Romeo, P K Lane, I Kelly, L J Daniel and G N Vyas

Department of Laboratory Medicine, University of California, San Francisco 94143-0134.

Published November 1990

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is the predominant etiologic agent of posttransfusion non-A, non-B hepatitis, characterized by undulating elevation of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and chronic liver disease. A commercial enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay detected antibodies to HCV (anti-HCV) in 11 specimens among 101 nontransfusable plasma units obtained from asymptomatic, volunteer blood donors with elevated levels' of ALT. Using a combined reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay developed by us, HCV RNA was detected in 0.6 ml of plasma from 8 of 11 (73%) of the anti-HCV-positive but in none of the 90 anti-HCV-negative specimens. The relatively low concentration of HCV RNA could be detected in the remaining three anti-HCV-positive specimens when 2.4 ml of plasma was analyzed. The plasma concentration of virions was estimated to range from 10(2) to 5 x 10(7)/ml. Direct sequencing performed on the PCR-amplified HCV cDNAs (210 base pairs) from three specimens revealed heterogeneity between 2.5 and 8.6% at the nucleotide level and less than 4% at the amino acid level. Our findings demonstrate that RT-PCR can be performed with 2.4 ml of plasma, providing an assay for the direct detection of HCV RNA and confirming the existence of an asymptomatic carrier state for HCV infection in the apparently healthy anti-HCV-positive donors.

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