Lymphoproliferative responses to hepatitis C virus core, E1, E2, and NS3 in patients with chronic hepatitis C infection treated with interferon alfa



The quality of the hepatitis C virus (HCV)-specific T-cell response may greatly determine the course of an HCV infection. An adequate T-cell response may contribute to a successful clearance of the virus and a rapid recovery from the disease. An inadequate response may lead to viral persistence and may eventually contribute to the pathogenesis of hepatocellular damage in chronic disease. The effect of interferon alfa (IFN-α), presently the most popular therapeutic agent for chronic HCV infections, on HCV-specific T-cell responses is completely unknown. To demonstrate the presence of HCV-specific T lymphocytes during chronic HCV infections, to know their antigenic specificities, and to examine possible effects of IFN-α treatment on their presence and antigen recognition patterns, we have stimulated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from 35 chronic HCV patients with nine pools of synthetic peptides representing the HCV Core, E1, and E2 proteins as well as with a recombinant NS3 protein. The proliferative responses of PBMC from 16 healthy control subjects toward these antigens were measured for comparison. Lymphoproliferative responses of patients with chronic HCV infections were assayed either before (in 10 patients), during (in 13 patients), or after (in 21 patients) treatment with IFN-α. The analysis showed that PBMC from most HCV patients consistently recognized the COOH-terminal part of the core protein. E1, E2, and NS3 were recognized less frequently. This recognition pattern was not related to the therapy with IFN-α nor to the clinical response of the patient toward this therapy. The response to the Core protein could be fine-mapped to the COOH-terminal region encompassing amino acids (aa) 73 to 92, 121 to 140, 145 to 164, and 157 to 176.