The role of cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) in limiting viral replication and producing hepatocellular injury in patients with chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is controversial.
Intrahepatic and peripheral blood HCV-specific CTL activity against the entire HCV polyprotein was assessed in 26 patients. CTL responses were assessed after effector lymphocytes were re-stimulated for 6 days in vitro using HCV-vaccinia virus-infected autologous cells expressing HCV antigens. Serum and hepatic viral loads were measured and immunohistochemistry for CD3 and CD8 was performed to localise and enumerate effector cells in liver.
A positive CTL response was detected in 39/52 (75%) of assays conducted with intrahepatic mononuclear cells and 21/52 (40%) of peripheral blood assays (P<0.001). The presence of an intrahepatic CTL response was associated with low hepatic viral load (P=0.004). Hepatic lobular infiltration by CD8(+)T cells correlated weakly with serum alanine aminotransferase levels (r=0.42, P=0.04) and no relationship was demonstrated between CTL activity and histological evidence of liver damage.
HCV-specific CTL activity is found more commonly in liver than in blood. An inverse relationship between CTL responses and viral load supports the hypothesis that HCV-specific CTL limit viral replication in patients with chronic HCV infection.