Background: Chronic HCV-infection is characterized by a severe impairment of HCV-specific CD4 T cell help that is driven by chronic antigen stimulation. We aimed to study the fate of HCV-specific CD4 T cells after viral elimination. Methods:HCV-specific CD4 T cell responses were longitudinally analyzed using MHC class II tetramer-technology, multicolor flow cytometry and RNA sequencing in a cohort of chronically HCV-infected patients undergoing therapy with direct-acting antivirals. In addition, HCV-specific neutralizing antibodies and CXCL13 levels were analyzed. Results: We observed that the frequency of HCV-specific CD4 T cells increased within two weeks after initiation of DAA therapy. Multicolor flow cytometry revealed a downregulation of exhaustion and activation markers and an upregulation of memory-associated markers. While cells with a Th1 phenotype were the predominant subset at baseline, cells with phenotypic and transcriptional characteristics of follicular T helper cells increasingly shaped the circulating HCV-specific CD4 T cell repertoire, suggesting antigen-independent survival of this subset. These changes were accompanied by a decline of HCV-specific neutralizing antibodies and the germinal center activity. Conclusion: We identified a population of HCV-specific CD4 T cells with a follicular T helper cell signature that is maintained after therapy-induced elimination of persistent infection and may constitute an important target population for vaccination efforts to prevent re-infection and immunotherapeutic approaches for persistent viral infections.
Maike Smits, Katharina Zoldan, Naveed Ishaque, Zuguang Gu, Katharina Jechow, Dominik Wieland, Christian Conrad, Roland Eils, Catherine Fauvelle, Thomas F. Baumert, Florian Emmerich, Bertram Bengsch, Christoph Neumann-Haefelin, Maike Hofmann, Robert Thimme, Tobias Boettler