CD56(+)T cells and CD56(+)natural killer (NK) cells are abundant in the human liver. The aim of this study was the further characterization of these cells in the liver with or without hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. Liver mononuclear cells (MNC) were isolated from liver specimens obtained from the patients during abdominal surgery. In addition to a flow cytometric analysis, liver MNC and PBMC were cultured with the immobilized anti-CD3 Ab, IL-2, or a combination of IL-2 and IL-12 and their IFN-gamma production and the antitumor cytotoxicity were assessed. The liver MNC of HCV (-) patients contained 20% CD56(+)T cells whereas the same proportions decreased to 11% in chronic hepatitis livers and to 5% in cirrhotic livers. The proportion of NK cells also decreased in the cirrhotic livers. On the other hand, the populations of these cells in PBMC did not significantly differ among patient groups. The IFN-gamma production and the cytotoxicity against K562 cells, Raji cells, and a hepatocellular carcinoma, HuH-7 cells, greatly decreased in the cirrhotic liver MNC. In contrast, the cytotoxicity in PBMC did not significantly differ among the patient groups and was lower than that in the liver MNC of HCV (-) patients. CD56(+)T cells and NK cells but not regular T cells purified from liver MNC cultured with cytokines showed potent cytotoxicities against HuH-7 cells. These results suggest that a decreased number of CD56(+)T cells and NK cells in cirrhotic livers may be related to their susceptibility to hepatocellular carcinoma.