The immunologic mechanisms involved in virus-induced hepatitis were examined by measuring the cytotoxic capabilities and the morphologic and antigenic phenotypes of leukocytes isolated from livers of virus-infected mice. Large granular lymphocytes (LGL) of both natural killer (NK) cell and cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) phenotypes were found to accumulate in livers of mice infected with either the nonhepatotropic Armstrong strain of lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV-ARM) or the hepatotropic WE strain (LCMV-WE). Between days 1 and 5 postinfection (p.i.), both viruses induced a three- to fourfold increase in NK cell lytic activity in the livers of C3H/St mice and a three- to fourfold increase in the number of LGL in the organ. These LGL were characterized as NK cells on the basis of cell surface antigens, kinetics of appearance, target cell range, and morphology. By day 7 p.i., virus-specific, H-2-restricted, Thy-1+, Lyt-2+, CTL activity was present in the liver, and its appearance correlated with a second wave of LGL accumulation. CTL activity, total leukocyte number, and CTL/LGL number were at least fivefold higher in the livers of mice infected with LCMV-WE than with LCMV-ARM. The dramatic LCMV-WE-induced day 7 increases in total leukocytes and LGL were absent in athymic nude (nu/nu) mice, suggesting that the increases were T cell-dependent. LCMV-ARM infection of C57BL/6 mice induced significant spleen CTL activity but little liver CTL activity, whereas LCMV-WE infection resulted in significant liver CTL activity but minimal spleen CTL activity. Mice infected with the cytopathic hepatotropic viruses, mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) and murine cytomegalovirus (MCMV), experienced much greater increases in liver NK/LGL by day 3 p.i. than did mice infected with LCMV or injected with the interferon-inducer poly(I-C). MHV-infected mice homozygous for the beige (bg/bg) mutation also exhibited significant increases in liver NK/LGL cell number and activity, although the activity was less than heterozygote controls, and the morphology of the LGL granules was aberrant. These data show that the LGL accumulate in virus-infected organs, in this case, the liver. An early NK/LGL influx is most pronounced during infection with cytopathic hepatotropic viruses. This initial influx of NK/LGL is followed later by an influx of CTL also possessing LGL morphology. The CTL/LGL response in the liver is significantly greater during hepatotropic virus infections, even when a strong CTL response in the spleen is lacking.

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