HCV is an important cause of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). HCV NS5A domain-1 interacts with cellular proteins inducing pro-oncogenic pathways. Thus, we explore genetic variations in NS5A domain-1 and their association with HCC, by analyzing 188 NS5A sequences from HCV genotype-1b infected DAA-naïve cirrhotic patients: 34 with HCC and 154 without HCC. Specific NS5A mutations significantly correlate with HCC: S3T (8.8% vs. 1.3%, p = 0.01), T122M (8.8% vs. 0.0%, p < 0.001), M133I (20.6% vs. 3.9%, p < 0.001), and Q181E (11.8% vs. 0.6%, p < 0.001). By multivariable analysis, the presence of >1 of them independently correlates with HCC (OR (95%CI): 21.8 (5.7-82.3); p < 0.001). Focusing on HCC-group, the presence of these mutations correlates with higher viremia (median (IQR): 5.7 (5.4-6.2) log IU/mL vs. 5.3 (4.4-5.6) log IU/mL, p = 0.02) and lower ALT (35 (30-71) vs. 83 (48-108) U/L, p = 0.004), suggesting a role in enhancing viral fitness without affecting necroinflammation. Notably, these mutations reside in NS5A regions known to interact with cellular proteins crucial for cell-cycle regulation (p53, p85-PIK3, and β-catenin), and introduce additional phosphorylation sites, a phenomenon known to ameliorate NS5A interaction with cellular proteins. Overall, these results provide a focus for further investigations on molecular bases of HCV-mediated oncogenesis. The role of theseNS5A domain-1 mutations in triggering pro-oncogenic stimuli that can persist also despite achievement of sustained virological response deserves further investigation.
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