Antigenic and genetic variation in human respiratory syncytial virus

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Background.Human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV) is a leading cause of serious pediatric respiratory disease worldwide. Natural infection provides only partial protection as repeat infections occur throughout life. A brief review of the extent of antigenic and genetic variation observed in HRSV clinical isolates is presented.Methods and results.Recent experimental research is reviewed, describing key factors that may explain the ability of HRSV to cause multiple infections in the same individual even in the presence of an existing immune response. It is well-appreciated that variability of the G protein, both between and within antigenic subgroups A and B, is partially responsible for repeat HRSV infections. A high level of nucleotide change resulting in amino acid change provides strong evidence for selective pressure for change in G sequences, thus new HRSV variants. Although little variation in gene-coding sequences is observed in the F protein (the second major protective antigen), new evidence of genetic variation has identified alteration of gene expression levels by selection of changes in the gene end termination signal that precedes the gene encoding the F protein. Due to obligatory sequential transcription, these changes affect downstream gene expression levels. These data suggest that modulation of F protein levels may provide a selective advantage in the presence of a preexisting immune response.Conclusions.Experimental data in HRSV demonstrate that variation exists not only in gene-coding sequences but also in the signals that control gene expression. Thus alteration in the expression of key proteins provides a second type of antigenic “variation.” A better understanding of these differences is critical to the development of an effective vaccine.

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