The polymorphisms of IFNL4 are strongly associated with both spontaneous hepatitis C virus (HCV) clearance and response to peg-IFN-?/ribavirin treatment. To further establish the biological effects of the IFNL4 and rs1297860 variations, we studied the activity of liver immune cells.
During chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, the role of intra-hepatic (IH) natural killer (NK) cells is still controversial. To clarify their functions, we investigated anti-viral and cytotoxic activity of NK cells in human fresh liver biopsies. We compared the functions of IH-NK cells in HCV-infected and NASH patients in physiological conditions as well as after stimulation using flow cytometric and immunohistochemical analyses. Interestingly, few IH-NK cells produced anti-viral cytokine IFN-? in HCV-infected patients similarly as in non-infected individuals. Spontaneous degranulation activity was extremely low in peripheral NK cells compared to IH-NK cells, and was significantly higher in IH-NK cells from HCV-infected patients compared to non-infected individuals. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed that perforin granules were polarized at the apical pole of IH-NK cells. The presence of CD107a and perforin in IH-NK cells demonstrated that NK cells exerted a cytolytic activity at the site of infection. Importantly, IH-NK cell functions from HCV-infected patients were inducible by specific exogenous stimulations. Upon ex vivo K562 target cell stimulations, the number of degranulating NK cells was significantly increased in the pool of IH-NK cells compared to circulating NK cells. Interestingly, after stimulation, the frequency of IFN-?-producing IH-NK cells in HCV-infected patients was significantly higher at early stage of inflammation whereas the spontaneous IH-NK cell degranulation activity was significantly impaired in patients with highest inflammation and fibrosis Metavir scores. Our study highlights that some IH-NK cells in HCV-infected patients are able to produce INF-? and degranulate and that those two activities depend on liver environment including the severity of liver injury. Thus, we conclude that critical roles of IH-NK cells have to be taken into account in the course of the liver pathogenesis associated to chronic HCV infection.
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