Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a major cause of posttransfusion and community-acquired hepatitis, and a majority of individuals infected with this virus will subsequently develop chronic hepatitis. Characterization of the host immune response to this infection is an important first step that should facilitate the development of immunomodulatory agents and vaccines. Cellular immune responses, especially those mediated by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL), are important in the control of many viral diseases. In this study, liver-infiltrating lymphocytes from persons with chronic HCV hepatitis were examined for evidence of HCV-specific CTL by using target cells infected with recombinant vaccinia viruses expressing the HCV core, E1, E2, and part of the NS2 proteins. Bulk expansion of liver-derived CD8+ lymphocytes resulted in the detection of HCV-specific CTL activity, whereas activity could not be found in CD8+ lymphocytes expanded from peripheral blood. Epitopes recognized by these CTL were defined by using CTL clones obtained by limiting dilution and target cells sensitized with synthetic HCV peptides. Four distinct HLA class I-restricted epitopes were identified, including two epitopes in the amino-terminal portion of the core protein. These studies provide evidence that the highly conserved core protein is a target for HCV-specific CTL and identify CTL epitopes within the more highly variable E2 envelope protein. Our studies also suggest that HCV-specific CTL are localized at the site of tissue injury in infected persons with chronic hepatitis. Identification of the epitopes recognized by HCV-specific CTL will facilitate exploration of their role in disease pathogenesis and may provide information useful in development of therapeutic interventions or vaccines.
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