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World J Gastroenterol. 2016 Jan 28;22(4):1449-60. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v22.i4.1449.

Natural killer cells in hepatitis C: Current progress.

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Joo Chun Yoon, Youkyong Song, Department of Microbiology and Tissue Injury Defense Research Center, Ewha Womans University School of Medicine, Seoul 158-710, South Korea.


Patients infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) are characterized by a high incidence of chronic infection, which results in chronic hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma. The functional impairment of HCV-specific T cells is associated with the evolution of an acute infection to chronic hepatitis. While T cells are the important effector cells in adaptive immunity, natural killer (NK) cells are the critical effector cells in innate immunity to virus infections. The findings of recent studies on NK cells in hepatitis C suggest that NK cell responses are indeed important in each phase of HCV infection. In the early phase, NK cells are involved in protective immunity to HCV. The immune evasion strategies used by HCV may target NK cells and might contribute to the progression to chronic hepatitis C. NK cells may control HCV replication and modulate hepatic fibrosis in the chronic phase. Further investigations are, however, needed, because a considerable number of studies observed functional impairment of NK cells in chronic HCV infection. Interestingly, the enhanced NK cell responses during interferon-α-based therapy of chronic hepatitis C indicate successful treatment. In spite of the advances in research on NK cells in hepatitis C, establishment of more physiological HCV infection model systems is needed to settle unsolved controversies over the role and functional status of NK cells in HCV infection.


Accessory cell; Acute hepatitis; Chronic hepatitis; Hepatitis C virus; Immune evasion; Natural killer cell; Treatment response; Virus-host interaction

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