A characteristic feature of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is a high frequency of persistence and the progression to chronic liver diseases. Recent data suggest that prevalent T helper (Th) 2 immunity as well as weak HCV-specific T-cell response is associated with viral persistence. Here, we showed that the production of interleukin 12 (IL-12) and nitric oxide (NO) that is critical for the induction of Th1 and innate immunity, but not that of tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α), was significantly suppressed in both HCV core-expressing macrophage cell lines and mouse peritoneal macrophages treated with recombinant core protein. In addition, IL-12 p40 promoter activity was repressed by the presence of HCV core in macrophages stimulated with lipopolysaccharride (LPS) following IFN-γ treatment, indicating that IL-12 production may be downregulated at the transcriptional level. We also found that proliferation of T cells and IFN-γ, production in mixed lymphocyte reactions (MLR) with core-expressing cells were inhibited. Taken together, our results suggest that HCV core protein could play roles in suppressing the induction of Th1 immunity through inhibition of IL-12 and NO production.
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