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Hepatitis C virus persistence after spontaneous or treatment-induced resolution of hepatitis C.
May 17, 2004

Molecular Virology and Hepatology Research, Faculty of Medicine, Health Science Centre, Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada A1B 3V6.

It is presumed that resolution of hepatitis C, as evidenced by normalization of liver function tests and disappearance of hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA from serum, as determined by conventional laboratory assays, reflects virus eradication. In this study, we examined the _expression of the HCV genome in the sera, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), and, on some occasions, monocyte-derived dendritic cells (DC) long after resolution of hepatitis C by using a highly sensitive reverse transcription (RT)-PCR-nucleic acid hybridization (RT-PCR-NAH) assay.

The samples obtained from 16 randomly selected patients (5 with spontaneous and 11 with treatment-induced resolution), monitored for up to 5 years, were studied by qualitative and semiquantitative RT-PCR-NAH and by real-time RT-PCR to detect the HCV RNA positive strand. The replicative HCV RNA negative strand was examined in PBMC after culture with a T-cell proliferation stimulating mitogen. The findings show that HCV RNA was carried in the convalescent-phase sera and/or PBMC in all 16 individuals investigated.

Also, DC from six of seven patients were reactive for the HCV genome. Importantly, traces of the HCV RNA negative strand, suggesting progressing virus replication, were detected in the majority of mitogen-stimulated PBMC, including four samples collected 5 years after recovery. Sequencing of the HCV 5' untranslated region fragment revealed genotype 1b in four of nine individuals examined and genotypes 1a and 2a in three and two patients, respectively.

These results imply that HCV RNA can persist at very low levels in the serum and peripheral lymphoid cells and that an intermediate replicative form of the HCV genome can persist in PBMC for many years after apparently complete spontaneous or antiviral therapy-induced resolution of chronic hepatitis C.



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