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Keywords:

  • interferons;
  • interferon-alpha;
  • hepatitis C;
  • hepatitis C treatment;
  • antibodies to interferon;
  • resistance to interferon therapy

A number of trials have demonstrated that IFN-α is effective in chronic hepatitis C virus infection. It is known, however, that a number of chronic hepatitis C patients experience, after an initial response to IFN, disease reactivation or relapse (also called ‘breakthrough’) while IFN therapy is still ongoing. Since in a number of clinical conditions a significant correlation between development of antibodies to IFN and failure of therapy has been established, we addressed the possibility that the development of antibodies to IFN may take part in the relapse occurring in hepatitis C patients during recombinant IFN-α (rIFN-α) therapy. The prevalence of neutralizing (NA) and binding antibodies (BA) to rIFN-α2 has been evaluated in 45 patients with chronic hepatitis C treated with rIFN-α2a who first normalized aminotransferase (ALT) levels, and subsequently showed disease reactivation while on treatment. The presence of NA and BA was tested before therapy, during the response to IFN treatment, and at the time when ALT started to rise again to abnormal levels. The results showed that no patients had detectable antibodies to IFN before therapy and during the period of response to the therapy, while most of them (88.9%) developed NA and/or BA to IFN-α2 concomitantly with disease reactivation. In particular, in 29 of the 45 patients (64.4%) ALT normalized on treatment and rose to abnormal levels when NA appeared in their serum, while in 11 of the 16 (68.8%) remaining patients the relapse was associated with BA development. The frequency of seroconversion in these patients is significantly higher than that observed in the control group. These data indicate that antibodies to IFN may be responsible for breakthrough in the majority of patients showing disease reactivation while rIFN-α therapy is still ongoing.