CD8+ T lymphocyte responses are important in the clearance of viral infections. In chronic infections they may contribute to pathogenesis. To investigate the role of CD8+ T lymphocyte responses in viral clearance and chronic hepatitis C we have compared hepatitis C virus (HCV) specific cytotoxicity and interferon-gamma (IFN-γ) production in patients with resolved-acute, and chronic HCV infection. CD8+ T cell responses to a panel of 13 HCV T cell peptide epitopes were studied using Elispot assays of IFN-γ production and chromium release cytotoxicity assays. Responses of seven patients with resolved acute HCV infection were compared with those of 14 chronically infected patients. HCV-specific cytotoxicity differentiated the two populations of patients. The majority (71%) of patients with resolved acute infection tested positive to 42% of relevant peptides compared with the minority (28%) of patients with chronic hepatitis C (P=0.03) who responded to only 8% of relevant peptides (P=0.0009). In contrast, HCV-specific IFN-γ production was detected in 86% of patients with either resolved or chronic infection in response to 42% and 35%, respectively, of relevant peptides tested (not significant). In patients with chronic infection the magnitude of the HCV-specific IFN-γ production was inversely correlated to viral load (R2=0.52; P=0.042). Failure to clear HCV infection may be attributable to the presence of noncytolytic IFN-γ producing CD8+ T lymphocytes in chronically infected patients. However these CD8+ T cells may play a beneficial role in contributing to the control of viral load in chronic hepatitis C.