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Hepatitis C virus replicates in peripheral blood mononuclear cells of patients with occult hepatitis C virus infection
  1. I Castillo,
  2. E Rodríguez-Iñigo,
  3. J Bartolomé,
  4. S de Lucas,
  5. N Ortíz-Movilla,
  6. J M López-Alcorocho,
  7. M Pardo,
  8. V Carreño
  1. Fundación para el Estudio de las Hepatitis Virales, Madrid, Spain
  1. Correspondence to:
    Dr V Carreño
    Fundación para el Estudio de las Hepatitis Virales, Guzmán el Bueno, 72, 28015 Madrid, Spain;


Background: Occult hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is characterised by the presence of HCV-RNA in the liver in the absence of anti-HCV, and serum viral RNA. Up to 70% of these patients also have HCV-RNA in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) but it is not known if HCV is replicating in these cells.

Aim: We studied possible HCV replication in PBMC of 18 patients with an occult HCV infection who were selected on the basis of HCV-RNA positivity in PBMC.

Methods: Detection of HCV-RNA positive and negative strands in PBMC was done by strand specific reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and by in situ hybridisation.

Results: The presence of HCV-RNA positive strand in PBMC was confirmed in all patients by strand specific RT-PCR and by in situ hybridisation. Mean percentage of PBMC which had the HCV-RNA positive strand was 3.3% (95% confidence interval (CI) 2.1–4.4) The HCV-RNA negative strand was found in the PBMC of 11/18 (61%) patients by strand specific RT-PCR and confirmed by in situ hybridisation, and the percentage of PBMC harbouring the HCV-RNA negative strand was 3.1% (95% CI 0.8–5.5). There was a significant correlation (p = 0.001, r = 0.84) between the percentage of PBMC with the HCV-RNA positive strand and that of PBMC with the HCV-RNA negative strand.

Conclusion: HCV replicates in the PBMC of patients with occult HCV infection and thus, although these patients do not have serum HCV-RNA, they could be potentially infectious.

  • FISH, fluorescent in situ hybridisation
  • HCV, hepatitis C virus
  • AST, aspartate aminotransferase
  • ALT, alanine aminotransferase
  • GGTP, gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase
  • PBMC, peripheral blood mononuclear cells
  • RT-PCR, reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction
  • hepatitis C virus
  • peripheral blood mononuclear cells
  • fluorescent in situ hybridisation

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  • Conflict of interest: None declared.

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