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Keywords:

  • hepatitis C;
  • DNA proliferation;
  • cell cycle;
  • disease progression;
  • natural history

Summary. To test the hypothesis that hepatitis C virus (HCV) might induce hepatocyte proliferation directly, thereby predisposing HCV carriers to cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, we have used a new method to identify proliferating hepatocytes, employing a novel monoclonal antibody to minichromosome maintenance (Mcm) proteins, essential components of the pre-replication complex. Antibody to Ki-67, a conventional marker of cell division, was also studied. Eighty-seven patients with chronic HCV infection and a broad spectrum of histological change were studied. Proliferation was observed rarely in hepatocytes from normal liver from healthy controls (always less than 0.01%). However, proliferating hepatocytes were detected in all HCV-infected patients and the proportion of hepatocytes expressing Mcm-2 (3–40%) always exceeded that expressing Ki-67 (1–14%) and correlated positively with increasing stage of fibrosis (P = 0.0001) and viral replication (P = 0.0004). There were weaker but significant associations between the proportion of hepatocytes expressing Mcm-2 and inflammatory indices including interface hepatitis, portal tract inflammation, lobular inflammation and steatosis. There was no association between the proportion of hepatocytes expressing Mcm-2 and age, gender or past alcohol consumption, but there was a weak association with current consumption of alcohol (P = 0.0067). The proportion of Ki-67 hepatocytes did not correlate with any clinical, laboratory or histological parameter. Mcm-2 was also detected in bile duct cells, sinusoidal lining cells and infiltrating lymphocytes, but at low frequency. These data indicate first, that Mcm-2 is a more sensitive marker of hepatocyte proliferation than Ki-67, second that many hepatocytes in chronic HCV infection have entered the cell cycle and third, suggest that interference with the hepatocyte cell cycle might be an alternative approach to therapy.