Protection against hepatitis C infection via NK cells in highly-exposed uninfected injecting drug users.


HCV seroprevalence surveys in longstanding injecting drug users (IDUs) reveal a small minority who remain seronegative, with some exhibiting HCV-specific cellular immunity. This study aimed to characterise this immunity, assess associations with risk behaviours and protection against infection.

A nested case-control series from a prospective cohort of seronegative IDUs was selected with incident cases (IN; n = 28) matched by demographics and risk behaviour to exposed uninfected (EU) subjects (n = 28). Samples were assayed for natural killer (NK) cell phenotypes and function, HCV-specific IFNγ in ELISpot, and HCV-specific CD4 T effector responses. IL28B and HLA-C/KIR2DL3 genotypes were tested.

Sustained NK cell activation contributes to protection against HCV infection. HCV-specific cellular immunity is prevalent in EU subjects but does not appear to be protective.

Numbers of activated (CD69(+)) NK cells in the mature CD56(dim)CD16(+) subset, and cytotoxic (NKp30(+)) cells in the CD56(bright)CD16(+) subset were higher in the EU subjects (p = 0.040, p = 0.038 respectively). EU subjects had higher frequencies of interferon gamma (IFNγ) producing NK cells, and lower frequencies of CD107a expression (p = 0.003, p = 0.015 respectively). By contrast, the frequency, magnitude, and breadth of HCV-specific CD4 and CD8 T cell responses did not differ, nor did IL28B, HLA-C, or KIR2DL3 allele frequencies.

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