Liver cell apoptosis in chronic hepatitis C correlates with histological but not biochemical activity or serum HCV-RNA levels



In hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, mechanisms responsible for liver cell damage are still poorly understood and both necrosis and apoptosis may be operative. By using terminal deoxynucleotydil transferase-mediated d-UTP-biotin nick-end labeling (TUNEL) we have evaluated and quantified apoptosis in liver biopsy specimens from 61 patients with chronic hepatitis C. All patients had detectable apoptotic cells in the liver. Presence of increased apoptotic activity was confirmed in selected cases by electron microscopy and by DNA gel electrophoresis. The amount of liver cell apoptosis expressed as apoptotic index, ranged between 0.01% to 0.54% and showed a positive correlation with histological activity grading (P < .0005) and with the amount of infiltrating CD8-positive cells (P = .01). Apoptosis did not correlate with transaminase levels or with HCV load and genotype. These results support the concept that immune-mediated apoptosis may play a role in the pathogenesis of chronic hepatitis C and indicate that this type of reaction may occur in the absence of significant alanine transaminase (ALT) elevation, thus explaining the lack of correlation between biochemical activity and liver histological damage.