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Abstract

The immune response to viral antigens is thought to be responsible for viral clearance and disease pathogenesis during hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. In chronically infected patients, the T-cell response to the HCV is polyclonal and multispecific, although it is not as strong as the response in acutely infected patients who display a more vigorous T-cell response. Importantly, viral clearance in acutely infected patients is associated with a strong CD4+ helper T-cell response. Thus, the dominant cause of viral persistence during HCV infection may be the development of a weak antiviral immune response to the viral antigens, with corresponding inability to eradicate infected cells. Alternatively, if clearance of HCV from the liver results from the antiviral effect of T-cell–derived cytokines, as has been demonstrated recently for the hepatitis B virus, chronic HCV infection could occur if HCV is not sensitive to such cytokines or if insufficient quantities of cytokines are produced. Liver cell damage may extend from virally infected to uninfected cells via soluble cytotoxic mediators and recruitment and activation of inflammatory cells forming the necroinflammatory response. Additional factors that could contribute to viral persistence are viral inhibition of antigen processing or presentation, modulation of the response to cytotoxic mediators, immunological tolerance to HCV antigens, mutational inactivation of cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) epitopes, mutational conversion of CTL epitopes into CTL antagonists, and infection of immunologically privileged tissues. Analysis of the basis for viral persistence is hampered because the necessary cell culture system and animal model to study this question do not yet exist.