M Hoare, A Shankar, M Shah, S Rushbrook, W Gelson, S Davies, A Akbar, GJM Alexander
BACKGROUND & AIMS: Age is the dominant prognostic factor influencing the natural history of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection and treatment response. Accelerated lymphocyte telomere shortening in HCV infection correlates with adverse clinical outcomes. Critical telomere shortening generates double-stranded DNA breaks (DSB) inducing the DNA damage response, leading to replicative senescence. The phenotype and function of CD8+ T lymphocytes and the in vitro response to IFN-α in relation to the DNA damage response were investigated in patients with chronic HCV infection. METHODS: CD8+ T lymphocytes with DSB were identified by expression of γ-H2AX (Ser-139) in 134 HCV-exposed subjects and 27 controls. Telomere length was determined by flow-FISH; cytokine expression by intracellular cytokine staining; in vitro responses to IFN-α, IL-2 or IL-6 by phospho-STAT1 (Y701) or phospho-STAT5 (Y694) expression. RESULTS: The proportion of circulating CD8+γ-H2AX+ T lymphocytes rose with increasing fibrosis stage (p=0.0023). CD8+γ-H2AX+ T lymphocytes were enriched in liver compared to blood (p=0.03). CD8+γ-H2AX+ T lymphocytes demonstrated increased IFN-γ (p=0.02) and reduced IL-2 expression (p=0.02). CD8+γ-H2AX+ T lymphocytes failed to phosphorylate STAT1 in response to IFN-α compared to unfractionated CD8+ T lymphocytes (p <0.0001). More widespread failure of Jak/Stat signalling in CD8+γ-H2AX+ T lymphocytes was suggested by impaired phosphorylation of STAT1 with IL-6 (p=0.002) and STAT5 with IL-2 (p=0.0039) compared to unfractionated CD8+ T-lymphocytes. CONCLUSIONS: In chronic HCV infection, CD8+γ-H2AX+ T lymphocytes are highly differentiated with shortened telomeres, are more frequent within the liver, are associated with severe fibrosis and fail to activate Jak/Stat pathways in response to IFN-α, IL-2 or IL-6, perhaps explaining treatment failure in those with severe fibrosis.