Persistence of hepatitis C virus during and after otherwise clinically successful treatment of chronic hepatitis C with standard pegylated interferon α-2b and ribavirin therapy
Hepatitis C, Chronic
Resolution of chronic hepatitis C is considered when serum HCV RNA becomes repeatedly undetectable and liver enzymes normalize. However, long-term persistence of HCV following therapy with pegylated interferon-α/ribavirin (PegIFN/R) was reported when more sensitive assays and testing of serial plasma, lymphoid cells (PBMC) and/or liver biopsies was applied. Our aim was to reassess plasma and PBMCs collected during and after standard PegIFN/R therapy from individuals who became HCV RNA nonreactive by clinical testing. Of particular interest was to determine if HCV genome and its replication remain detectable during ongoing treatment with PegIFN/R when evaluated by more sensitive detection approaches. Plasma acquired before (n = 11), during (n = 25) and up to 12-88 weeks post-treatment (n = 20) from 9 patients and PBMC (n = 23) from 3 of them were reanalyzed for HCV RNA with sensitivity <2 IU/mL. Clone sequencing of the HCV 5'-untranslated region from plasma and PBMCs was done in 2 patients. HCV RNA was detected in 17/25 (68%) plasma and 8/10 (80%) PBMC samples collected from 8 of 9 patients during therapy, although only 5.4% plasma samples were positive by clinical assays. Among post-treatment HCV RNA-negative plasma samples, 9 of 20 (45.3%) were HCV reactive for up to 59 weeks post-treatment. Molecularly evident replication was found in 6/12 (50%) among PBMC reactive for virus RNA positive strand collected during or after treatment. Pre-treatment point mutations persisted in plasma and/or PBMC throughout therapy and follow-up. Therefore, HCV is not completely cleared during ongoing administration of PegIFN/R otherwise capable of ceasing progression of CHC and virus commonly persists at levels not detectable by the current clinical testing. The findings suggest the need for continued evaluation even after patients achieve undetectable HCV RNA post-treatment.