Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a common RNA virus that causes hepatitis and liver cancer. Infection is treated with IFN-α and ribavirin, but this expensive and physically demanding therapy fails in half of patients. The genomic sequences of independent HCV isolates differ by approximately 10%, but the effects of this variation on the response to therapy are unknown. To address this question, we analyzed amino acid covariance within the full viral coding region of pretherapy HCV sequences from 94 participants in the Viral Resistance to Antiviral Therapy of Chronic Hepatitis C (Virahep-C) clinical study. Covarying positions were common and linked together into networks that differed by response to therapy. There were 3-fold more hydrophobic amino acid pairs in HCV from nonresponding patients, and these hydrophobic interactions were predicted to contribute to failure of therapy by stabilizing viral protein complexes. Using our analysis to detect patterns within the networks, we could predict the outcome of therapy with greater than 95% coverage and 100% accuracy, raising the possibility of a prognostic test to reduce therapeutic failures. Furthermore, the hub positions in the networks are attractive antiviral targets because of their genetic linkage with many other positions that we predict would suppress evolution of resistant variants. Finally, covariance network analysis could be applicable to any virus with sufficient genetic variation, including most human RNA viruses.
Rajeev Aurora, Maureen J. Donlin, Nathan A. Cannon, John E. Tavis