Background & aims: The prospective comparison of patients with acute hepatitis C virus (HCV) who spontaneously clear the virus with those who cannot achieve viral elimination and progress to chronic hepatitis offers the unique opportunity to analyze natural mechanisms of viral elimination.
Methods: We studied the HCV-specific CD4(+) T-cell response in 38 patients with acute HCV and correlated the clinical course with the antiviral immune response. The individual HCV-specific T-cell response was assessed in a proliferation assay ((3)H-thymidine uptake) and an enzyme-linked immunospot assay.
Results: Patients were classified according to their clinical course and pattern of CD4(+) T-cell responses in 3 categories: first, patients mounting a strong and sustained antiviral CD4(+)/Th1(+) T-cell response who cleared the virus (HCV RNA-negative; n = 20); second, patients who were unable to mount an HCV-specific CD4(+) T-cell response and developed chronic disease (n = 12); and third, patients who initially displayed a strong CD4(+) T-cell response and eliminated the virus (HCV PCR-negative) but subsequently lost this specific T-cell response (n = 6). The loss of the HCV-specific CD4(+) T-cell response was promptly followed by HCV recurrence.
Conclusions: The results indicate that a virus-specific CD4(+)/Th1(+) T-cell response that eliminates the virus during the acute phase of disease has to be maintained permanently to achieve long-term control of the virus. The induction and/or maintenance of virus-specific CD4(+) T cells could represent a promising therapeutic approach in HCV infection.