Hepatitis C virus persistence after sustained virological response to antiviral therapy in patients with or without past exposure to hepatitis B virus


Tomasz I. Michalak, MD, PhD, Molecular Virology and Hepatology Research Group, Faculty of Medicine, Health Sciences Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL A1B 3V6, Canada. E-mail: timich@mun.ca


Summary.  Hepatitis C virus (HCV) and hepatitis B virus (HBV) frequently coinfect and persist long after clinical resolution. We assessed the incidence of low-level (occult) HCV infection (OCI) after sustained virological response (SVR) to standard anti-HCV therapy in individuals with or without past exposure to HBV to recognize whether HBV could influence the prevalence of OCI, HCV level and hepatic histology. Plasma and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were collected from 24 individuals at 6- to 12-month intervals for up to 72 months after SVR. Liver histology was available for nine patients. HCV and HBV genomes were detected with sensitivity <10 genome copies/mL. In individuals without HBV exposure (n = 15), comprehensive analyses of sequential plasma and PBMC samples revealed HCV RNA in all 15 cases (75% plasma and 61% PBMC). In the group with HBV exposure (n = 9), evidenced by circulating anti-HBc and/or HBV DNA detection by a highly sensitive assay, HCV RNA was identified in all cases (83% plasma and 59% PBMC), at levels similar to those in HBV nonexposed individuals. In both groups of patients, most liver biopsies included those reactive for viral genomes displayed low-grade inflammation (8 of 9) and fibrosis (7 of 9). Sequence polymorphisms at the 5`-UTR between PBMC and liver or plasma, as well as circulating HCV virion-like particles, were observed in patients with or without HBV exposure. In conclusion, the prevalence of OCI after SVR is comparable in individuals with or without past exposure to HBV. HCV loads and liver alterations in OCI appear to be unaffected by low-level HBV DNA carriage.