Viral genotype and host ethnicity are important predictors of viral clearance during antiviral therapy for chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. Based on the role of T cells in natural HCV clearance, we hypothesized that T cells may contribute to the genotypic and ethnic difference in treatment outcome. To test this hypothesis, T-cell response to HCV antigens (core, nonstructural NS3/4 and NS5) and control phytohemagglutinin (PHA) was monitored prospectively and was correlated with virological outcome in 41 patients chronically infected with HCV (27 genotype 1, 14 genotype 2 or 3; 19 black persons, 22 white persons) undergoing combined interferon alfa and ribavirin therapy. Interestingly, in patients with genotype 2 or 3 infection, enhanced virological response coincided with a greater T-cell response to HCV NS3/4 antigen at baseline (50% vs. 15%; P = .026) that augmented further during therapy (29% vs. 4%; P = .035) compared with genotype 1-infected patients. However, HCV-specific T-cell response remained weak in genotype 1-infected patients regardless of virological outcome or ethnicity. Furthermore, virological outcome was associated with a suppressed baseline proliferative response to phytohemagglutinin (P < .03) that increased during therapy (P < .003) independent of ethnicity or genotype. In conclusion. HCV-specific T-cell response was associated with HCV genotype but not with therapeutic clearance of HCV infection. The association between treatment outcome and phytohemagglutinin response suggests more global and antigen-nonspecific mechanisms for therapeutic HCV clearance.
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