BACKGROUND: Proinflammatory cytokines play a critical role in antiviral immune responses. Large-scale genome studies have found correlations between single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the interleukin (IL) 18 promoter and spontaneous control of hepatitis C virus (HCV), suggesting a role in clearance.
METHODS: Plasma IL-18, IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, IL-12, interferon-γ, tumor necrosis factor-α, alanine aminotransferase (ALT), and HCV RNA levels were assessed longitudinally in subjects with known dates of HCV acquisition and analyzed according to IL-18 SNPs and outcome, either spontaneous clearance (SC) (n = 13) or persistent infection (PI) (n = 25).
RESULTS: No significant change in plasma proinflammatory cytokine expression was observed with the exception of IL-18, which increased in every subject with initial detection of HCV RNA. In every SC subject, IL-18 returned to the preinfection baseline concomitant with HCV control. In PI subjects, IL-18 declined following the acute phase of infection but remained above the preinfection baseline throughout chronic infection and did not correlate with HCV RNA or ALT levels.
CONCLUSIONS: Plasma IL-18 was an early and the most reliably detected host response to HCV infection measured in blood. Reduced IL-18 production with transition to chronic infection without correlation with HCV RNA or ALT levels suggests modulation of the innate response with persistent infection.