The lymphoid system in hepatitis C virus infection: autoimmunity, mixed cryoglobulinemia, and Overt B-cell malignancy

Semin Liver Dis. 2000;20(2):143-57. doi: 10.1055/s-2000-9613.


Like other hepatotropic viruses, hepatitis C virus (HCV) shares the property of inducing hepatocellular damage, possibly through induction of immune mechanisms that lead to hepatocellular necrosis. After infection of hepatocytes, and possibly other cells, humoral and cellular responses occur aimed at prevention of virus dissemination and elimination of infected cells. The early activated mechanisms include production of nonspecific and specific antibodies that represent the first-line of defense against invading foreign pathogens. As a consequence, circulating immune complexes are promptly formed, and antigen uptake and processing by specialized cells are enhanced. A major fraction of circulating immunoglobulins (Igs) are part of the spectrum of the so-called natural antibodies, which include anti-idiotypic antibodies and molecules with rheumatoid factor (RF) activity. They mainly belong to the IgM class, are polyclonal, and have no intrinsic pathogenetic potential. In 20-30% of HCV-infected patients, RFs share characteristics of high affinity molecules, are monoclonal in nature, and result in the production of cold-precipitating immune complexes and mixed cryoglobulinemia. It has been shown that anti-idiotypic antibodies and polyclonal and monoclonal RF molecules have the same cross-reactive idiotype, called WA, suggesting that their production is highly restricted. This strongly indicates that they arise from stimulation with the same antigen, likely HCV. It has also been speculated that B-1 (CD5+) and B-2 (CD5-) B-cell subsets, which use a limited number of VH germline genes, underlie the production of low-affinity polyclonal and high-affinity monoclonal antibodies, respectively. The persistent production of monoclonal RF molecules implies the existence of a further mechanism capable of restricting the reactivity and reflects a distinct selection of a cell population that can be maintained throughout life because they are continuously exposed to antigen pressure. Either polyclonal or monoclonal profiles of B-cell expansion are demonstrable in the liver of most HCV-infected patients. The occurrence of B-cell clonal expansion is strictly related to intrahepatic production of RF molecules, and this suggests that liver is a microenvironment, other than lymphoid tissue, in which a germinal centerlike reaction is induced. The frequent detection of oligoclonal B-cell expansion may, indeed, represent a key pathobiologic feature that sustains nonmalignant B-cell lymphoproliferation. The preferential expansion of one clone would in turn lead to a monoclonal pattern that could favor stochastic oncogenic events. It can be postulated that HCV is the stimulus not only for the apparent benign lymphoproliferative process underlying a wide spectrum of clinical features, but also for the progression to frank lymphoid malignancy in a subgroup of patients. Current data indicate a higher prevalence of overt B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in HCV-infected patients, especially in some geographic areas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autoimmunity / immunology*
  • Cell Division
  • Cryoglobulinemia / immunology*
  • Cryoglobulinemia / physiopathology
  • Hepacivirus / immunology*
  • Hepatitis C / immunology*
  • Hepatitis C / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Liver / cytology
  • Liver / immunology*
  • Lymphoma, B-Cell / etiology
  • Lymphoma, B-Cell / immunology*
  • Rheumatoid Factor / biosynthesis


  • Rheumatoid Factor