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J Immunol. 2005 May 15;174(10):6532-9.

Hepatitis C virus drives the unconstrained monoclonal expansion of VH1-69-expressing memory B cells in type II cryoglobulinemia: a model of infection-driven lymphomagenesis.

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  • 1Department of Clinical Medicine, Division of Clinical Immunology, University of Rome La Sapienza, and Istituto Dermopatico dell'Immacolata, Rome, Italy.


Chronic hepatitis C virus infection causes B cell lymphoproliferative disorders that include type II mixed cryoglobulinemia and lymphoma. This virus drives the monoclonal expansion and, occasionally, the malignant transformation of B cells producing a polyreactive natural Ab commonly encoded by the V(H)1-69 variable gene. Owing to their property of producing natural Ab, these cells are reminiscent of murine B-1 and marginal zone B cells. We used anti-Id Abs to track the stages of differentiation and clonal expansion of V(H)1-69(+) cells in patients with type II mixed cryoglobulinemia. By immunophenotyping and cell size analysis, we could define three discrete stages of differentiation of V(H)1-69(+) B cells: naive (small, IgM(high)IgD(high)CD38(+)CD27(-)CD21(high)CD95(-)CD5(-)), "early memory" (medium-sized, IgM(high)IgD(low)CD38(-)CD27(+)CD21(low)CD95(+)CD5(+)), and "late memory" (large-sized, IgM(low)IgD(low-neg)CD38(-)CD27(low)CD21(low-neg)CD5(-)CD95(-)). The B cells expanded in cryoglobulinemia patients have a "memory" phenotype; this fact, together with the evidence for intraclonal variation, suggests that antigenic stimulation by hepatitis C virus causes the unconstrained expansion of activated V(H)1-69(+) B cells. In some cases, these cells replace the entire pool of circulating B cells, although the absolute B cell number remains within normal limits. Absolute monoclonal V(H)1-69(+) B lymphocytosis was seen in three patients with cryoglobulinemia and splenic lymphoma; in two of these patients, expanded cells carried trisomy 3q. The data presented here indicate that the hepatitis C virus-driven clonal expansion of memory B cells producing a V(H)1-69(+) natural Ab escapes control mechanisms and subverts B cell homeostasis. Genetic alterations may provide a further growth advantage leading to an overt lymphoproliferative disorder.

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