The adult liver is an organ without constitutive lymphoid components. Therefore, any intrahepatic T cell found in chronic hepatitis should have migrated to the liver after infection and inflammation. Because of the little information available on the differences between intrahepatic and peripheral T cells, we used recombinant proteins of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) to establish specific T cell lines and clones from liver biopsies of patients with chronic hepatitis C and compared them with those present in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). We found that the protein nonstructural 4 (NS4) was able to stimulate CD4+ T cells isolated from liver biopsies, whereas with all the other HCV proteins we consistently failed to establish liver-derived T cell lines from 16 biopsies. We then compared NS4-specific T cell clones obtained on the same day from PBMC and liver of the same patient. We found that the 22 PBMC-derived T cell clones represent, at least, six distinct clonal populations that differ in major histocompatibility complex restriction and response to superantigens, whereas the 27 liver-derived T cell clones appear all identical, as further confirmed by cloning and sequencing of the T cell receptor (TCR) variable and hypervariable regions. Remarkably, none of the PBMC-derived clones has a TCR identical to the liver-derived clone, and even with polymerase chain reaction oligotyping we did not find the liver-derived clonotypic TCR transcript in the PBMC, indicating a preferential intrahepatic localization of these T cells. Functionally, the liver-derived T cells provided help for polyclonal immunoglobulin (Ig)A production by B cells in vitro that is 10-fold more effective than that provided by the PBMC-derived clones, whereas there is no difference in the help provided for IgM and IgG production. Altogether these results demonstrate that the protein NS4 is highly immunogenic for intrahepatic CD4+ T cells primed by HCV in vivo, and that there can be compartmentalization of some NS4-specific CD4+ T cells to the liver of patients with chronic hepatitis C.

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