Background & Aims Natural killer (NK) cells play an important role in the pathogenesis of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. We have previously shown that culture-derived HCV (HCVcc) enhance tumor necrosis-factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) expression on healthy NK cells, but not on those from patients infected with HCV, which was likely dependent on accessory cells. Here we sought to elucidate the mechanisms involved in altered TRAIL upregulation in this setting. Methods Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from controls and patients infected with HCV were exposed to HCVcc. Cell depletions were performed to identify cells responsible for NK cell activation. Flow cytometry and ELISA were used to identify the cytokines involved in the NK activation process. Results In patients infected with HCV, soluble factors secreted by control PBMC restored the ability of NK cells to express TRAIL. Of note, CD14+ cell depletion had identical effects upon virus exposure and promoted increased degranulation. Moreover, increased concentrations of interleukin (IL)-18 binding protein a (IL-18BPa) and IL-36 receptor antagonist (IL-36RA) were observed after PBMC exposure to HCVcc in patients with HCV. HCVcc-induced NK cell TRAIL expression was inhibited by IL-18BPa and IL-36RA in control subjects. There were statistically significant correlations between IL-18BPa and indices of liver inflammation and fibrosis, supporting a role for this protein in the pathogenesis of chronic HCV infection. Conclusions During chronic HCV infection, monocytes play a key role in negative regulation of NK cell activation, predominantly via secretion of inhibitors of IL-18 and IL-36. Lay summary Coordination and collaboration between immune cells are essential to fight pathogens. Herein we show that during HCV infection monocytes secrete IL-18 and IL-36 inhibitory proteins, reducing NK cell activation, and consequently inhibiting their ability to express TRAIL and kill target cells.
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