We used two-color and three-color flow cytometric analysis to study phenotypical activation and functional subsets of T and natural killer cells in the blood and liver tissue of patients with primary biliary cirrhosis, other chronic liver diseases and the blood of healthy subjects. The changes in blood lymphocyte phenotype in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis and other chronic liver diseases were similar and comprised elevated relative or absolute numbers of activated human leukocyte antigen-DR+ T subset (CD4+ and CD8+) cells and DR+ natural killer–like (CD16+) cells. B cell (CD19+) numbers were normal. In primary biliary cirrhosis a selective reduction in T cells of suppressor-inducer (CD45RA+ CD4+) type was registered. The human leukocyte antigen–DR expression among CD4 + T cell subsets was investigated further in primary biliary cirrhosis and healthy controls using triple antibody flow cytometric analysis. Phenotypical cell activation was confined to helper T cells of the primed, memory (CD45RO + CD4+) type. The decrease in suppressor-inducer T cells in primary biliary cirrhosis was paralleled by a reciprocal increase in primed memory T cells.
Several significant differences were observed when blood and liver-infiltrating cells from primary biliary cirrhosis patients were compared. In the liver tissue, the CD4/CD8 ratio was decreased, the relative activation of T-subset cells and NK cells was further increased, the suppressor-inducer T subset was further depressed and the primed memory T subset was increased. The cytotoxic T-cell subset (CD11b−) dominated within the CD8+ population. In liver tissue from other chronic liver disease subjects, a lower CD4/CD8 ratio was found compared with primary biliary cirrhosis. However, the infiltrate was relatively similar to primary biliary cirrhosis, indicating a common inflammatory pattern. (HEPATOLOGY 1991;13:1106–1111.)