A significant number of patients with hepatitis C (HCV) treated with interferon (IFN) will initially clear their serum of HCV RNA, but will then have recurrence of viraemia either during or after therapy. One proposed mechanism for relapse is that HCV may persist in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and that the PBMCs serve as a 'viral reservoir' that is resistant to IFN. To address this hypothesis, we performed serial, quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of HCV RNA in serum and PBMCs from 26 consecutive patients treated with IFN-α2a. Of the 26 patients, 11 (42%) did not clear virus from their serum during therapy and were termed non-responders. Five patients (19%) had sustained clearance of virus from serum and were termed complete responders. The remaining 10 patients (39%) initially eliminated HCV RNA from their serum, but had relapse of viraemia. They were termed partial responders. In all 10 partial responders HCV RNA was undetectable in PBMCs at the same time that it was undetectable in serum. When virus recurred in serum, it was preceded by or occurred at the same time as the return of virus in PBMCs. The results of our study indicate that PBMCs did not serve as an IFN-resistant 'vital reservoir' during therapy. Partial responders who transiently cleared virus from serum also cleared virus from PBMCs and the presence or titre of HCV RNA in PBMCs at the initiation of therapy did not predict response to therapy.
- Hepatitis C virus
- Peripheral blood mononuclear cells
- Quantitative polymerase chain reaction
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