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J Exp Med. 2007 Mar 19;204(3):667-80. Epub 2007 Mar 12.

Cytokines induced during chronic hepatitis B virus infection promote a pathway for NK cell-mediated liver damage.

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Division of Infection and Immunity, University College London, London W1T 4JF, UK.


Hepatitis B virus (HBV) causes chronic infection in more than 350 million people worldwide. It replicates in hepatocytes but is non-cytopathic; liver damage is thought to be immune mediated. Here, we investigated the role of innate immune responses in mediating liver damage in patients with chronic HBV infection. Longitudinal analysis revealed a temporal correlation between flares of liver inflammation and fluctuations in interleukin (IL)-8, interferon (IFN)-alpha, and natural killer (NK) cell expression of tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) directly ex vivo. A cross-sectional study confirmed these findings in patients with HBV-related liver inflammation compared with healthy carriers. Activated, TRAIL-expressing NK cells were further enriched in the liver of patients with chronic HBV infection, while their hepatocytes expressed increased levels of a TRAIL death-inducing receptor. IFN-alpha concentrations found in patients were capable of activating NK cells to induce TRAIL-mediated hepatocyte apoptosis in vitro. The pathogenic potential of this pathway could be further enhanced by the ability of the IFN-alpha/IL-8 combination to dysregulate the balance of death-inducing and regulatory TRAIL receptors expressed on hepatocytes. We conclude that NK cells may contribute to liver inflammation by TRAIL-mediated death of hepatocytes and demonstrate that this non-antigen-specific mechanism can be switched on by cytokines produced during active HBV infection.

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