Background: Although the rate of mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis C virus (HCV) is low, the effect of HCV exposure in utero on the fetal immune system is unknown.
Methods: Umbilical cord blood was obtained from 7 neonates born to HCV-seropositive, HCV RNA-positive women and 8 neonates born to HCV-seronegative women. Cord blood mononuclear cells were analyzed by immunophenotyping and by intracellular cytokine staining after HCV-specific and polyclonal stimulation. Plasma was analyzed for anti-HCV immunoglobulin M (IgM), cytokine/granzyme concentrations, and indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) activity.
Results: HCV-exposed neonates had significantly lower levels of regulatory T cells expressing HLA-DR, lower CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cell activation, and lower plasma levels of pro-inflammatory markers than did controls. However, CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells from HCV-exposed neonates had higher IFN-γ production in response to polyclonal stimulation than did T cells from controls. IDO activity was similar between groups. No HCV-specific T cell responses or anti-HCV IgM were detected in any neonates.
Conclusions: HCV-exposed neonates showed a relative suppression of immune activation and pro-inflammatory markers, which was counterbalanced by an increased production capacity for IFN-γ. These results suggest that HCV encounters the fetal immune system in utero, and alters the balance between suppressive and pro-inflammatory responses.