Introduction We have identified a cohort of injection drug users (IDU) who, despite long-term high risk sharing of drug injection equipment, remain seronegative and aviraemic for HCV. These exposed uninfected (EU) IDU appear resistant to HCV infection. This resistance is associated with the same Natural Killer (NK) immunoglobulin-like receptor (KIR)/HLA genotype known to favour spontaneous HCV clearance. Whether there is a functional alteration in NK cell cytotoxicity in these individuals is unknown.
Aim To investigate cytotoxic function of NK cells in EU.
Method Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were isolated from 16 EU (HCV-Ab positive and HCV-RNA negative), 10 IDU with untreated chronic HCV (cHCV) and five IDU with spontaneous resolution (SR) of HCV (HCV-Ab positive but HCV RNA negative). NK cytotoxicity was assessed against the NK-sensitive K562 cell line. PBMC incubated for 48 h with or without interleukin-2 (IL-2) were co-cultured with K562 for 4 h at an E:T ratio of 10:1. Flow cytometry was used to assess the frequency of NK cells [CD56(+) CD3(−)] in PBMC and cytotoxicity quantified by CFSE/7-AAD co-staining and expressed as the percentage of cells lysed.
Results Natural killer cell cytotoxicity, in the absence of IL-2 stimulation, was no different between the groups. With IL-2 stimulation, EU demonstrated significantly higher cytotoxicity compared to cHCV (32.8±4.4% vs 17.6±3.2%, p=0.023), with similar levels to SR (27.7±9.9%, p=0.50). The proportion of NK cells in PBMC was not significantly different between the groups.
Conclusion The current findings point to enhanced NK cytotoxicity in EU cases compared to those with chronic infection and suggests a role for NK cells in early viral clearance and resistance to HCV infection.
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