Broadly neutralizing antibodies are commonly present in the sera of patients with chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. To elucidate possible mechanisms of virus escape from these antibodies, retrovirus particles pseudotyped with HCV glycoproteins (HCVpp) isolated from sequential samples collected over a 26-year period from a chronically infected patient, H, were used to characterize the neutralization potential and binding affinity of a panel of anti-HCV E2 human monoclonal antibodies (HMAbs). Moreover, AP33, a neutralizing murine monoclonal antibody (MAb) to a linear epitope in E2, was also tested against selected variants. The HMAbs used were previously shown to broadly neutralize HCV and to recognize a cluster of highly immunogenic overlapping epitopes, designated domain B, containing residues that are also critical for binding of viral E2 glycoprotein to CD81, a receptor essential for virus entry. Escape variants were observed at different time points with some of the HMAbs. Other HMAbs neutralized all variants except for the isolate 02.E10, obtained in 2002, which was also resistant to MAb AP33. The 02.E10 HCVpp that have reduced binding affinities for all antibodies and for CD81 also showed reduced infectivity. Comparison of the 02.E10 nucleotide sequence with that of the strain H-derived consensus variant, H77c, revealed the former to have two mutations in E2, S501N and V506A, located outside the known CD81 binding sites. Substitution A506V in 02.E10 HCVpp restored binding to CD81, but its antibody neutralization sensitivity was only partially restored. Double substitutions comprising N501S and A506V synergistically restored 02.E10 HCVpp infectivity. Other mutations that are not part of the antibody binding epitope in the context of N501S and A506V were able to completely restore neutralization sensitivity. These findings showed that some nonlinear overlapping epitopes are more essential than others for viral fitness and consequently are more invariant during earlier years of chronic infection. Further, the ability of the 02.E10 consensus variant to escape neutralization by the tested antibodies could be a new mechanism of virus escape from immune containment. Mutations that are outside receptor binding sites resulted in structural changes leading to complete escape from domain B neutralizing antibodies, while simultaneously compromising viral fitness by reducing binding to CD81
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