HCV (hepatitis C virus) infects nearly 3% of the population worldwide and has emerged as a major causative agent of liver disease, resulting in acute and chronic infections that can lead to fibrosis, cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Hepatitis C represents the leading cause of liver transplantation in the United States and Europe. A positive-strand RNA virus of the Flaviviridae family, HCV contains a single-stranded RNA genome of approx. 9600 nucleotides. The genome RNA serves as both mRNA for translation of viral proteins and the template for RNA replication. Cis-acting RNA elements within the genome regulate RNA replication by forming secondary structures that interact with each other and trans-acting factors. Although structural proteins are clearly dispensable for RNA replication, recent evidence points to an important role of several non-structural proteins in particle assembly and release, turning their designation on its head. HCV enters host cells through receptor-mediated endocytosis, and the process requires the co-ordination of multiple cellular receptors and co-receptors. RNA replication takes place at specialized intracellular membrane structures called ‘membranous webs’ or ‘membrane-associated foci’, whereas viral assembly probably occurs on lipid droplets and endoplasmic reticulum. Liver inflammation plays a central role in the liver damage seen in hepatitis C, but many HCV proteins also directly contribute to HCV pathogenesis. In the present review, the molecular and cellular aspects of the HCV life cycle and the role of viral proteins in pathological liver conditions caused by HCV infection are described.

You do not currently have access to this content.