Hepatitis C virus (HCV)-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) are present in the peripheral blood and liver of chronically infected patients. The current study was performed to study the relationship between the strength of the CTL response, liver disease severity, and viral load. The results may be summarized as follows: first, using CTL precursor frequency (CTLpf) analysis to quantitate the peripheral blood CTL response, chronically infected patients were less strongly sensitized to a panel of well-defined HCV epitopes than they were to an epitope within the influenza matrix protein. Second, HCV-specific CTLpf did not correlate with disease activity or viral load in the majority of patients on a cross-sectional basis, although it did increase in three patients concomitant with sharp increases in liver disease. Finally, interferon therapy did not enhance the CTLpf against the HCV epitopes studied in these patients, indicating that its antiviral effect is independent of the CTL response. Since the HCV-specific CTLpf in the blood is actually quite low, the CTL may contribute to ongoing liver disease in these patients while being quantitatively inadequate to destroy all of the infected hepatocytes, thereby facilitating HCV persistence and contributing to chronic liver disease.