BACKGROUND: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is a major cause of morbidity in HIV infected individuals. Coinfection with HIV is associated with diminished HCV-specific immune responses and higher HCV RNA levels.
AIMS: To investigate whether long-term combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) restores HCV-specific T cell responses and improves the control of HCV replication.
METHODS: T cell responses were evaluated longitudinally in 80 HIV/HCV coinfected individuals by ex vivo interferon-gamma-ELISpot responses to HCV core peptides, that predominantly stimulate CD4(+) T cells. HCV RNA levels were assessed by real-time PCR in 114 individuals.
RESULTS: The proportion of individuals with detectable T cell responses to HCV core peptides was 19% before starting cART, 24% in the first year on cART and increased significantly to 45% and 49% after 33 and 70 months on cART (p=0.001). HCV-specific immune responses increased in individuals with chronic (+31%) and spontaneously cleared HCV infection (+30%). Median HCV RNA levels before starting cART were 6.5 log(10) IU/ml. During long-term cART, median HCV-RNA levels slightly decreased compared to pre-cART levels (-0.3 log10 IU/ml, p=0.02).
CONCLUSIONS: Successful cART is associated with increasing cellular immune responses to HCV core peptides and with a slight long-term decrease in HCV RNA levels. These findings are in line with the favourable clinical effects of cART on the natural history of hepatitis C and with the current recommendation to start cART earlier in HCV/HIV coinfected individuals.