Caspase activation correlates with the degree of inflammatory liver injury in chronic hepatitis C virus infection



Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is a major cause of liver disease characterized by inflammation, cell damage, and fibrotic reactions of hepatocytes. Apoptosis has been implicated in the pathogenesis, although it is unclear whether proteases of the caspase family as the central executioners of apoptosis are involved and how caspase activation contributes to liver injury. In the present study, we measured the activation of effector caspases in liver biopsy specimens of patients with chronic HCV infection. The activation of caspase-3, caspase-7, and cleavage of poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase (PARP), a specific caspase substrate, were measured by immunohistochemistry and Western blot analysis by using antibodies that selectively detect the active truncated, but not the inactive precursor forms of the caspases and PARP. We found that caspase activation was considerably elevated in liver lobules of HCV patients in comparison to normal controls. Interestingly, the immunoreactive cells did yet not reveal an overt apoptotic morphology. The extent of caspase activation correlated significantly with the disease grade, i.e., necroinflammatory activity. In contrast, no correlation was observed with other surrogate markers such as serum transaminases and viral load. In biopsy specimens with low activity (grade 0) 7.7% of the hepatocytes revealed caspase-3 activation, whereas 20.9% of the cells stained positively in grade 3. Thus, our results suggest that caspase activation is involved in HCV-associated liver injury. Moreover, measurement of caspase activity may represent a reliable marker for the early detection of liver damage, which may open up new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies in HCV infection.