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Keywords:

  • hepatitis C virus;
  • cytotoxic T lymphocytes;
  • CD4+ lymphocytes;
  • cytokines

Summary. Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is notable for the high rate of chronic infection, which occurs in nearly all individuals who become infected. Liver biopsies from individuals with chronic HCV infection are notable for the presence of numerous mononuclear cells, at least some of which are CD4+ and CD8+ T lymphocytes. The immune response to HCV is polyclonal and multispecific, both in terms of antibody and cellular immune responses. Individuals who recover from acute HCV infection appear to have quantitatively more vigorous CD4+ proliferative responses against one or more HCV proteins compared with those individuals who develop chronic disease. CD8+ responses are less well characterized, in part because of the technical difficulties involved in isolating and characterizing these cells. HCV-specific CTL can be readily isolated from the liver and PBMC of chronically infected individuals, and recognize multiple epitopes. Even individuals with the same HLA type do not consistently recognize the same epitope. Thus, there does not appear to be an immunodominant response on the CD8+ level in this infection. CD8+ cells do appear to play some role in limiting viral replication. These responses are insufficient to eradicate virus completely, however, and may cause liver injury once chronic infection is established. Cytokines produced by both CD4+ and CD8+ cells may play an important role in both inhibiting viral replication and causing liver injury. A better understanding of the role of cellular immunity in the pathogenesis of HCV infection may aid in the development of vaccines and immunotherapeutic intervention strategies.