In this study, we characterized the B cell and T cell responses to the hydrophilic portion of hepatitis C virus (HCV) core protein in two strains of mice and identified the respective antigen determinants. BALB/c(H-2(d)) and C57BL/6 (B6:H-2b) mice were immunized by a subcutaneous injection of recombinant HCV core protein together with Freund's complete adjuvant. The level of antibody production, as determined by ELISA, was consistently higher in BALB/c than in B6 mice. However, antibodies in sera from each strain bound to the N-terminal region of the core protein within amino acids 1 to 28 (MSTNPKPQRKIKRNTNRRPQDVKFPGGG), according to an experiment using non-overlapping peptides that covered the hydrophilic portion of HCV core protein. The T cell responses were also higher in BALB/c than in B6 mice with respect to the proliferative responses of the draining lymph node cells in vitro. By limiting dilution cultures of the draining lymph node cells in vitro repetitively stimulated with recombinant core protein, T cell clones were established from both strains of mice and characterized. The surface markers of these clones were Thy-1.2+, CD3+, TCRαβ+, CD4+ and CD8-. The proliferative responses were inhibited in the presence of anti-CD4 or anti-MHC class II monoclonal antibodies. The T cell lines in BALB/c mice recognized an epitope in HCV core at amino acids 72 to 91 (EGRAWAQPGYPWPLYGNEGL). The T cell lines in B6 mice recognized an epitope at amino acids 55 to 74 (RPQPRGRRQPIPKARQPEGR). Thus, mice with different MHC haplotypes recognized different non-overlapping T cell antigenic determinants of HCV core proteins.
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