Blunted thrombopoietin response to interferon alfa–induced thrombocytopenia during treatment for hepatitis C



Thrombocytopenia is common in advanced-stage liver disease and is partly caused by inadequate thrombopoietin (TPO) production in the failing liver. Treatment of chronic hepatitis C with interferon alfa (IFN-α) often induces thrombocytopenia, sometimes even leading to discontinuation of treatment. TPO regulation in response to IFN-α–induced thrombocytopenia was studied in patients with chronic hepatitis C with and without cirrhosis (Child A). An in vitro culture system with HepG2 cells was used to demonstrate any direct effects of IFN-α on TPO mRNA expression, TPO synthesis, or TPO secretion from liver cells. Thrombocyte count was lower (U test: P < .05) in patients with hepatitis C cirrhosis compared with patients with chronic hepatitis C without cirrhosis before IFN therapy, and decreased in both patient groups (Wilcoxon matched-pairs test: P < .05) on IFN therapy, the median decrease in both groups being comparable (noncirrhotic patients, 35%; cirrhotic patients, 32%; U test: P = .57). TPO levels rose in noncirrhotic patients (Wilcoxon matched-pairs test: P < .05), but not in patients with cirrhosis (noncirrhotic patients' median increase: 43% vs. cirrhotic patients' median decrease: 5%; U test: P < .001). Even in patients without cirrhosis, the increase in TPO levels was relatively small for the decrease in platelet count. No effect of IFN-α could be demonstrated on TPO mRNA expression in vitro, but TPO secretion from liver cells was significantly reduced. Lower platelet counts but similar TPO levels in patients with chronic hepatitis C and cirrhosis compared with noncirrhotic patients and a moderate increase in TPO levels in noncirrhotic patients with a missing increase in cirrhotic patients during IFN-α–induced thrombocytopenia provide further evidence for an impairment of TPO production in patients with cirrhosis and during IFN therapy. Recombinant human TPO could be of value in patients developing severe thrombocytopenia under IFN-α therapy.