Invariant NK T (iNKT) cells are implicated in viral clearance; however, their role in hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection remains controversial. Here, iNKT cells were studied during different stages of HCV infection. iNKT cells from patients with acute HCV infection and people who inject drugs (PWID) with chronic or spontaneously resolved HCV infection were characterized by flow cytometry. In a longitudinal analysis during acute HCV infection, frequencies of activated CD38+ iNKT cells reproducibly declined in spontaneously resolving patients, whereas they were persistently elevated in patients progressing to chronic infection. During the first year of infection, the frequency of activated CD38+ or CD69+ iNKT cells strongly correlated with alanine transaminase levels with particularly pronounced correlations in spontaneously resolving patients. Increased frequencies of activated iNKT cells in chronic HCV infection were confirmed in cross-sectional analyses of PWID with chronic or spontaneously resolved HCV infection; however, no apparent functional differences were observed with various stimulation protocols. Our data suggest that iNKT cells are activated during acute hepatitis C and that activation is sustained in chronic infection. The correlation between the frequency of activated iNKT cells and alanine transaminase may point toward a role of iNKT cells in liver damage.
Tina Senff, Christopher Menne, Christine Cosmovici, Lia Laura Lewis-Ximenez, Jasneet Aneja, Ruth Broering, Arthur Y. Kim, Astrid M. Westendorf, Ulf Dittmer, Norbert Scherbaum, Georg M. Lauer, Jörg Timm