• hepatitis C virus RNA;
  • interferon-α treatment;
  • peripheral blood mononuclear cells;
  • polymerase chain reaction

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is able to replicate in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) of HCV-infected patients. Few data are available on PBMC testing for HCV RNA in serum HCV RNA negative patients, positive for anti-HCV and with histological evidence of chronic hepatitis. Twenty such patients were studied; of these, 11 were tested during interferon α (IFN) treatment, at the time of serum HCV RNA clearance and ALT normalisation: only one was found to be positive for HCV sequences in PBMC. Within 3 months of IFN withdrawal all 11 patients relapsed with high ALT and recurrence of serum HCV RNA. Of nine serum HCV RNA negative patients with chronic hepatitis C who were not receiving IFN when tested (four untreated patients and five patients who had already completed IFN schedule), PBMC HCV RNA was detected in four. Evidence of active HCV replication (presence of the minus strand genome) in PBMC was also observed in two cases. Thus, five of the 20 patients without detectable serum HCV RNA turned out to be carriers of HCV sequences in PBMC. These data indicate that: 1. PBMC are an extrahepatic replication site of HCV; this is true also in the absence of serum HCV RNA; 2. the role of PBMC as a “viral reservoir” after IFN-induced serum HCV RNA clearance is questioned; 3. the absence of both serum and PBMC HCV RNA in patients under IFN is not predictive of sustained viral loss; 4. testing for PBMC viral sequences might enhance the chances of detecting HCV infection.