Cellular immune responses persist and humoral responses decrease two decades after recovery from a single-source outbreak of hepatitis C

A Takaki, M Wiese, G Maertens, E Depla, U Seifert, A Liebetrau, J L Miller, M P Manns, B Rehermann
Nature Medicine 2000, 6 (5): 578-82
As acute hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is clinically inapparent in most cases, the immunologic correlates of recovery are not well defined. The cellular immune response is thought to contribute to the elimination of HCV-infected cells and a strong HCV-specific T-helper-cell (Th) response is associated with recovery from acute hepatitis C (ref. 2). However, diagnosis of resolved hepatitis C is based at present on the detection of HCV-specific antibodies and the absence of detectable HCV RNA, and detailed comparison of the humoral and cellular immune response has been hampered by the fact that patient cohorts as well as HCV strains are usually heterogeneous and that clinical data from acute-phase and long-term follow-up after infection generally are not available. We studied a cohort of women accidentally exposed to the same HCV strain of known sequence and found that circulating HCV-specific antibodies were undetectable in many patients 18-20 years after recovery, whereas HCV-specific helper and cytotoxic T-cell responses with an interferon (IFN)-gamma-producing (Tc1) phenotype persisted. The data indicate these HCV-specific CD4 + and CD8+ T cells are biomarkers for a prior HCV exposure and recovery. Because of undetectable antibodies against HCV, the incidence of self-limited HCV infections and recovery may be underestimated in the general population.

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