The pathogenesis of chronic hepatitis C and the mechanisms underlying progressive liver disease in patients with chronic hepatitis C infection are poorly understood. To demonstrate which inflammatory cells might be responsible for the necroinflammatory damage in chronic hepatitis C infection, we have correlated the phenotype of the intrahepatic lymphocytes and macrophages with histological activity in liver biopsy and explant specimens from 19 patients with chronic hepatitis C infection. In all stages of disease, more CD8+ than CD4+ lymphocytes were found. However, histologically active versus histologically mild hepatitis was associated with a trend toward greater parenchymal concentrations of CD4+ lymphocytes (0.71 +/- 0.27 per 10(4) microns 2 versus 0.35 +/- 0.15; not significant), significantly less parenchymal CD8+ lymphocytes (0.90 +/- 0.1 versus 1.70 +/- 0.3; t = 2.32, P = 0.03) and a greater parenchymal CD4/CD8 ratio (4.1 +/- 2.8 versus 0.91 +/- 0.3; t = 1.65, P = 0.07). No difference was found in the number of cells containing cytotoxic granules between the two groups. Greater numbers of CD4+ lymphocytes were found in liver biopsy specimens with little or no staining for hepatitis C virus antigen (1.47 +/- 0.88 versus 0.27 +/- 0.27; t = 2.28, P < 0.05). No significant differences were found in the macrophage subsets between the three stages of disease. Our data suggest that active histological disease in chronic hepatitis C infection may be associated with an increase in CD4+ lymphocytes and suggest that CD4+ T cells may play an important role in the hepatic injury in these patients.