Objective: To investigate the clinical characteristics, outcomes, and results of hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA analyses in a group of patients with HCV-associated mixed cryoglobulinemia (MC) vasculitis who experienced a relapse of vasculitis despite achieving a sustained viral response to treatment with antiviral agents.
Methods: HCV RNA testing was performed by the transcription-mediated amplification (TMA) method in sera and cryoprecipitates (detection limit 2.5 IU/ml). HCV replication was assessed in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) by a modified real-time polymerase chain reaction assay (detection limit 15 IU/10(6) cells).
Results: We identified 8 patients with relapse of HCV-MC vasculitis despite their having achieved a sustained viral response to treatment. Relapse appeared early after the end of treatment (mean +/- SD 2.5 +/- 3.5 months) and included mainly purpura (n = 7) and arthralgia (n = 5). Relapse was associated with an increase in serum cryoglobulin levels as compared with end-of-treatment levels (mean +/- SD 0.3 +/- 0.09 gm/liter and 0.08 +/- 0.04 gm/liter, respectively; P < 0.01) and a decrease in C4 levels. In most patients, the relapse was brief, and the MC vasculitis manifestations subsided. A search for HCV RNA by TMA was negative in all patients tested (7 of 8 patients), both in sera and in cryoprecipitates. HCV replication was not found in PBMCs from any of the patients tested (6 of 8 patients). In 3 patients, the MC vasculitis symptoms persisted and were associated with elevated cryoglobulin levels. B cell lymphoma was diagnosed in 2 of these 3 patients.
Conclusion: Relapse of MC vasculitis does occur in a few patients with HCV infection, despite achieving a sustained viral response, and this relapse is not related to persistence of virus. Relapse is short-lived and may be induced by the withdrawal of interferon alfa therapy. However, in patients with persistent MC vasculitis symptoms, a different underlying condition should be considered, especially B cell lymphoma.