There is growing interest in the tendency of B cells to change their functional program in response to overwhelming antigen loading, perhaps by regulating specific parameters, such as efficiency of activation, proliferation rate, differentiation to antibody-secreting cells (ASC), and rate of cell death in culture. We show that individuals persistently infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) carry high levels of circulating immunoglobulin G (IgG) and IgG-secreting cells (IgG-ASC). Thus, generalized polyclonal activation of B-cell functions may be supposed. While IgGs include virus-related and unrelated antibodies, IgG-ASC do not include HCV-specific plasma cells. Despite signs of widespread activation, B cells do not accumulate and memory B cells seem to be reduced in the blood of HCV-infected individuals. This apparent discrepancy may reflect the unconventional activation kinetics and functional responsiveness of the CD27+ B-cell subset in vitro. Following stimulation with T-cell-derived signals in the absence of B-cell receptor (BCR) engagement, CD27+ B cells do not expand but rapidly differentiate to secrete Ig and then undergo apoptosis. We propose that their enhanced sensitivity to BCR-independent noncognate T-cell help maintains a constant level of nonspecific serum antibodies and ASC and serves as a backup mechanism of feedback inhibition to prevent exaggerated B-cell responses that could be the cause of significant immunopathology.
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