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Immune responses in hepatitis C virus infection.

Journal of Hepatology

CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes, immunology, Hepatitis C, Hepatitis C Antibodies, blood, Humans, T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic

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      Abstract

      Infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) commonly causes persistent disease, which may lead to cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. The pathogenesis of HCV infection is not well understood. It is most likely that both viral and host factors contribute to HCV persistence. This review focuses on the host's immune response to HCV in an attempt to present the current knowledge and concepts of the interactions between the virus and the host during HCV infection. Expansion of B lymphocytes and antibody production to virtually any HCV protein can be detected in most infected patients. However, observations in HCV-infected humans as well as experimental infections in chimpanzees suggest that natural HCV infection does not induce protective immunity, and reinfection can readily be demonstrated after inoculation with homologous or independent strains in HCV-seroconverted animals. Nevertheless, the immune system may gain partial control over HCV even in patients with chronic infection, as HCV infection in severely immunocompromised patients runs a particular cholestatic course which may rapidly lead to death from liver failure. Cytotoxic CD8+ T lymphocyte responses to HCV proteins have been characterized in peripheral blood and liver tissue and were found to be remarkably polyclonal and multispecific. Epitopes were identified on all of the putative HCV proteins, although only few major histocompatibility complex molecules were considered restriction elements. Immunoregulation may be particularly important in HCV infection. The HCV core and NS4 proteins appear to be most immunogenic for peripheral blood lymphocytes, and NS4 specific CD4+ lymphocytes are preferentially compartmentalized to the liver. However, there is an inverse relationship between CD4+ lymphocyte responses and antibody levels in infected patients. Furthermore, a strong cellular response to the HCV core protein apparently favors a benign course of infection. This unusual T-B cell relationship may be the consequence of an altered cytokine release during HCV infection. Alternatively, this virus may have found devices that can disturb immunoregulation in infected patients. A better understanding of these immunological mechanisms induced by HCV infection should make it possible to develop more effective strategies for the prevention and treatment of this insidious disease.

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