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Abstract

Antibodies to nuclei (ANA), smooth muscle (SMA), and liver/kidney microsomes type 1 (anti-LKM1) may occur in chronic hepatitis C. Distinct subspecificities, including ANA with the homogeneous pattern (ANA-H) and SMA with antiactin specificity (SMA-AA), are found in autoimmune hepatitis (AIH). This study was performed to characterize the hepatitis C virus (HCV)-associated autoantibodies and to evaluate their influence on the profile of the disease. Two hundred ninety consecutive patients with chronic hepatitis C and 35 control cases with AIH were screened for autoantibodies by indirect immunofluorescence (IFL) at 1:40 serum dilution. The ANA pattern was defined by IFL on HEp-2 cells and the SMA-AA identified by the presence of at least two of the following elements: 1) SMA(T) or SMA(G) pattern by IFL on kidney sections; 2) XR1 precipitating system by counterimmunoelectrophoresis; or 3) typical pattern by IFL on liver sections from phalloidin-intoxicated rats. ANA, SMA, and anti-LKM1 occurred in 9%, 20%, and 6% of chronic hepatitis C cases, respectively. The overall prevalence of autoantibodies was 30% (87 of 290). Compared with AIH, HCV-associated ANA and SMA exhibited ANA-H and SMA-AA at a lower prevalence (38% vs. 71%, P = .04 and 8% vs. 87%, P < .000001, respectively) and had a lower median titer (1:80 vs. 1:320, P < .001 and 1:40 vs. 1:320, P < .000001, respectively). The concomitant positivity for ANA-H and SMA-AA was detected in none of the HCV cases, but in 46% of AIH sera (P < .000001). Two parameters were independently associated with the autoantibodies in chronic hepatitis C: high alanine transaminase (ALT) serum levels (F = 14.04) and female gender (F = 5.03). At the univariate analysis, patients with autoantibodies had a more severe portal-periportal necroinflammation (median Scheuer's score: 2.05 vs. 1.64, P = .003). The presence of autoantibodies did not influence the response to interferon (IFN). In chronic hepatitis C, serum autoantibodies are common, but their subspecificities are distinct from those occurring in AIH. Whereas the absence of ANA-H and/or SMA-AA does not exclude AIH, the characterization of ANA and SMA may help to discriminate between the two conditions. As compared with the seronegative counterpart, autoantibody-positive chronic hepatitis C is more common in females and exhibits a more severe biochemical and histological activity. The response to IFN therapy, however, is similar.