The mechanism behind the apparent lack of effective antiviral immune responses in chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) patients is poorly understood. It remains unclear if natural regulatory T cells (Treg) contribute to the induction and maintenance of HCV persistence. We herein report for the first time that CD25(high)IFN-gamma(-)FOXP3(high) Tregs can be rapidly induced by culturing peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) of HCV-positive patients with HCV protein-derived peptides. The HCV-specific Tregs, generally CD4(+)CD45RO(+), did not proliferate in response to HCV peptide and failed to produce interferon (IFN)-gamma, in distinct contrast to antiviral effector cells. Stimulation of healthy donor PBMCs with HCV peptides did not result in CD25 and FOXP3 upregulation above non-antigen background. To further investigate the antigen specificity of these potentially disease-associated natural Tregs, CD25(+) cells were isolated from PBMCs, labeled with carboxyfluorescein diacetate succinimidylester and added back to CD25-depleted PBMCs, and the co-cultures were then stimulated with individual peptides derived from the HCV core protein. We found that the actual peptide that can stimulate Treg varied between patients, but within any given subject only a small number of the peptides were able to stimulate Treg, suggesting the existence of dominant Treg epitopes. Although functional experiments for these peptides are ongoing in our laboratory, data presented here suggests that HCV-specific natural Tregs are abundant in infected individuals, in contrast to the extremely low frequency of anti-HCV effector T cells, supporting the view that natural Treg may be implicated in host immune tolerance during HCV infection.