Background & Aims: Several studies have reported hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA sequences in the circulation after treatment-induced or spontaneous recovery. We investigated whether the HCV RNA represents persistence of HCV infection or reinfection. Methods: We studied 117 patients who recovered from HCV infection (98 following therapy and 19 spontaneously). A reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction assay was used to detect the 5′-untranslated region of HCV. T-cell responses were studied by enzyme-linked immunospot for interferon-γ. Results: Plasma samples from 15% of treatment-recovered patients and no spontaneously recovered patient tested positive for HCV RNA. Lymphocytes from 3 patients who responded to therapy and 1 who recovered spontaneously tested positive. The frequency of HCV RNA detection in plasma correlated inversely with the time after the end of treatment. Post-treatment HCV 5′-untranslated region sequences matched pretreatment sequences in 85% of cases. T-cell responses were significantly greater at time points with detectable trace amounts of HCV RNA than at time points without detectable HCV RNA (P = .035) and were primarily against nonstructural HCV antigens. The immune hierarchy was preserved over 5 years in patients whose post-treatment HCV RNA sequences matched pretreatment sequences, indicating HCV RNA persistence. An altered immune hierarchy with dominant immune responses, shifting from nonstructural to structural antigens, was observed in a single patient whose post-treatment HCV genotype differed from that of the pretreatment genotype, indicating HCV reinfection. Conclusions: Trace amounts of HCV RNA of pretreatment sequence persisted and reappeared sporadically in the circulation within 8 years after recovery from hepatitis C but not thereafter, indicating that patients are cured of HCV infection. Reappearance of HCV RNA induced HCV-specific T-cell responses.
- Liver Disease
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