Although epidemiological and functional studies have implicated NK cells in protection and early clearance of HCV, the mechanism by which they may contribute to viral control is poorly understood, particularly at the site of infection, the liver. We hypothesized that a unique immunophenotypic/functional NK cell signature exists in the liver that may provide insights into the contribution of NK cells to viral control. Intrahepatic and blood NK cells were profiled from chronically infected HCV-positive and HCV-negative individuals. Baseline expression of activating and inhibitory receptors was assessed, as well as functional responses following stimulation through classic NK cell pathways. Independent of HCV infection, the liver was enriched for the immunoregulatory CD56bright NK cell population, which produced less IFNγ and CD107a but comparable levels of MIP1β, and was immunophenotypically distinct from their blood counterparts. This profile was mostly unaltered in chronic HCV infection, though different expression levels of NKp46 and NKG2D were associated with different grades of fibrosis. In contrast to the liver, chronic HCV infection associated with an enrichment of CD161low perforinhigh NK cells in the blood correlated with increased AST and 2B4 expression. However, the association of relatively discrete changes in the NK cell phenotype in the liver with the fibrosis stage nevertheless suggests an important role for the NK response. Overall these data suggest that tissue localization has a more pervasive effect on NK cells than the presence of chronic viral infection, during which these cells might be mostly attuned to limiting immunopathology. It will be important to characterize NK cells during early HCV infection, when they should have a critical role in limiting infection.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)