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Abstract

Chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is a serious disease that can result in numerous long-term complications leading to liver failure or death. Approximately 80% of people fail to clear their infection, largely as the result of weak, narrowly targeting or waning antiviral T-cell responses. Although professional antigen presenting cells (APCs) like dendritic cells (DCs) might serve as targets for modulation of T-cell immunity, the particular role of DCs in immunity to HCV is not known. Moreover the identity, phenotype, and functional characteristics of such populations in the liver, the site of HCV replication, have proven difficult to elucidate. Using a multicolor flow-based approach, we identified six distinct populations of professional APCs among liver interstitial leukocytes isolated from uninfected and HCV-infected patients. Although a generalized enrichment of DCs in the liver compared to blood was observed for all patients, HCV infection was characterized by a significant increase in the frequency of intrahepatic myeloid DCs (both CD1c+ and CD141+). Phenotypic analyses of liver plasmacytoid (pDC) and myeloid DCs (mDC) further revealed the HCV-induced expression of maturation molecules CD80, CD83, CD40, and programmed death ligand-1. Importantly, pDC and mDCs from HCV-infected liver were capable of secreting effector cytokines, interferon-alpha and interleukin-12, respectively, in response to Toll-like receptor stimulation in vitro. Conclusion: Chronic HCV infection facilitates the “customized” recruitment of liver DC subsets with established functional roles in antigen presentation. These DCs are characterized by a mature, activated phenotype and are functionally responsive to antigenic stimulation in vitro. Such findings highlight an important paradox surrounding liver DC recruitment during HCV infection, where despite their activation these cells do not provide adequate protection from the virus. (HEPATOLOGY 2012;56:2071–2081(