Mixed cryoglobulinemia (MC) is a lymphoproliferative disorder observed in ∼10 to 15% of hepatitis C virus (HCV)-infected patients. Circulating, nonenveloped HCV core protein, which has been detected in cryoprecipitable immune complexes, interacts with immunocytes through the receptor for the globular domain of C1q protein (gC1q-R). In this study, we have evaluated circulating gC1q-R levels in chronically HCV-infected patients, with and without MC. These levels were significantly higher in MC patients than in those without MC and in healthy controls and paralleled specific mRNA expression in PBL. Soluble gC1q-R circulates as a complexed form containing both C1q and HCV core proteins. Higher serum gC1q-R levels negatively correlated with circulating concentrations of the C4d fragment. The presence of sequestered C4d in the vascular bed of skin biopsies from MC patients was indicative of in situ complement activation. In vitro studies showed that release of soluble gC1q-R is regulated by HCV core-mediated inhibition of cell proliferation. Our results indicate that up-regulation of gC1q-R expression is a distinctive feature of MC, and that dysregulated shedding of C1q-R molecules contributes to vascular cryoglobulin-induced damage via the classic complement-mediated pathway.
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