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Keywords:

  • chemokines;
  • cytokines;
  • exposed uninfecteds;
  • hepatitis C virus;
  • injection drug users;
  • interleukins

Summary.  A cohort of injection drug users (IDU) have been identified who despite a long history of IDU and sharing of injecting equipment remain seronegative and aviraemic for hepatitis C virus (HCV). They have been termed HCV exposed uninfected (EU). The study of potential innate or adaptive immune mechanisms of resistance to HCV infection in this group is of interest. The aim of this study was to determine the levels of a broad range of cytokines in serum of exposed, uninfected individuals to ascertain whether there is a specific cytokine profile associated with apparent resistance to HCV. Sera from 22 EU individuals were analysed for a range of cytokines and chemokines, and compared to 16 treatment-naive chronic HCV cases (HCV Ab+ RNA+), 16 individuals with spontaneous resolution of HCV (HCV-Ab+ and HCV-RNA−) and 10 healthy unexposed controls. EU subjects had strikingly higher levels of both IL-6 (on average more than 100-fold, P = 0.001) and IL-8 (on average more than 10-fold, P < 0.001) than the comparison groups. Additionally higher levels of tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α; on average up to threefold, P = 0.02) were seen in EU individuals. The levels of interferon-alpha (IFN-α) were upregulated in all HCV exposed groups in comparison to healthy controls (P = 0.013). Adaptive immune cytokine levels were no different between the groups. Cytokine profiling demonstrated raised levels of pro-inflammatory innate immune cytokines and chemokines in EU IDU, in particular interleukin-6 and interleukin-8. These findings suggest innate immune activation may be the key to prevention of infection in this cohort.