Aims: Despite the importance of dendritic cells in stimulating primary and secondary immune responses by presenting antigens to T-lymphocytes in draining lymph nodes and peripheral tissues, respectively, very limited information is available on the presence and localization of these cells in hepatitis C virus (HCV)-related chronic active hepatitis. Therefore, we addressed the ultrastructure, immunophenotype, distribution and relationships to lymphatics of dendritic cells in portal infiltrates of this disease.
Methods and results: Part of percutaneous diagnostic liver biopsies (Knodell's histological assessment index: 9-13) was processed for electron microscopy and for immunohistochemical detection of immune system cell membrane antigens and of the lymphatic endothelium marker podoplanin. In portal infiltrates, cells with electron microscopical and cell marker features of dendritic cells and expressing the activation markers CD54, CD80, CD83 and CD86 were organized in a discontinuous network, that embedded CD8+ lymphocytes in close contact with dendritic cells and came in contact with hepatocytes, sometimes infiltrating beyond the limiting plate. Also, dendritic cells were found within newly formed lymphatic capillaries in thin, infiltrated septa among hepatocytes.
Conclusions: This evidence strongly suggests a critical role of dendritic cells and newly formed lymphatics in the pathogenesis and organization of the immune infiltrate that characterizes HCV-related chronic active hepatitis.