The majority of hepatitis C virus (HCV)-infected individuals fail to resolve the infection and become chronically infected despite the presence of HCV-specific CTL responses directed to different HCV-derived peptide antigens. Only a minority of individuals is able to clear the virus by mounting efficient CTL responses early after acute infection, but at present it is not clear whether viral clearance is associated with CTL responses of defined specificity. To elucidate those responses associated with improvement of the disease, we analyzed CTL responses to 16 different HLA-A2-presented, HCV-derived epitopes in 12 chronically infected patients, 14 chronically infected patients treated with interferon- § , and in one patient with acute symptomatic disease. We show here that the majority of chronically infected individuals present CTL responses directed to an NS4-derived peptide antigen (amino acids 1789–1797). Treated patients presented stronger HCV-specific CTL responses and therapy-induced changes in CTL target choice. In particular, 13 out of 14 individuals responded to an NS3-derived epitope (amino acids 1073–1081). By longitudinal analysis we show that five individuals responding to IFN- § therapy with decreases in alanine aminotransfrase levels presented a strong CTL activity directed to the NS3-derived epitope. One patient that spontaneously resolved the infection presented a generally strong CTL activity specific for HCV-derived epitopes with a dominant response to the NS3-derived peptide antigen. This suggests that CTL responses directed to this NS3-derived antigen may be beneficial for the control of HCV infection. Improvement of these responses may represent a therapeutic intervention in chronic HCV infection.
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