Role of the specific T-cell response for clearance and control of hepatitis C virus


Professor Dr G. R. Pape Medical Clinic II, Klinikum Grosshadern and Institute for Immunology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, Marchioninistrasse 15, 81377 Munich, Germany. E-mail:


T cells are believed to be the main players in antiviral defence. To investigate the role of the specific CD4+ T cell response for clearance and control of the hepatitis C virus we studied patients with acute hepatitis C (AHC) during the phase of spontaneous viral clearance and during follow up after elimination of the virus and resolution of disease. Symptomatic AHC has a self-limited course in 50% of patients, whereas the other half show virus persistence and develop chronic course of disease. Patients who were able to mount a vigorous, polyclonal, multispecific, TH1 lymphokine dominated CD4+ T-cell response showed viral clearance and a self-limited course of disease. In contrast, absence of this T-cell response in patients with AHC invariably led to viral persistence and chronic hepatitis. The characteristics of the T-cell response were as follows: it was mainly directed against nonstructural proteins of the virus, it was multispecific and demonstrated immunodominant epitopes, and the majority of T-cell clones established from our patients responded to a single peptide (NS3 aminoacid 1248–1261) within the helicase region of HCV. Presentation of the peptide was HLA DR specific, the peptide showed promiscous binding, and it had high binding affinity to 10 of the most common 13 HLA DR alleles, thus patients with diverse HLA DR backgrounds could mount an immune response. Furthermore, the epitope was conserved in 100% of 33 HCV strains published in databases. This strong initial CD4+ T-cell response is not sufficient for a definitive recovery from AHC, it has to be maintained to control the hepatitis C virus. Loss of the response after initial resolution of disease is followed by relapse. Even 20 years after an episode of self-limited AHC with elimination of HCV, we have observed a significant virus-specific CD4+ T-cell response. Our data indicate the decisive role of the virus-specific CD4+ T-cell response for clearance and control of HCV, and contribute to our understanding of immune mechanisms by which the host defends the HCV virus. This is a prerequisite for the development of new strategies to efficiently defend the virus by manipulating or modulating the immune response.