Could chronic hepatitis C infection ever be beneficial? It sounds surprising, but there might be one scenario in which the hepatitis C virus (HCV) actually lends a hand: for patients needing a liver transplant. HCV infection could make it less likely that immune-suppressing drugs are needed long-term after a liver transplant. Certainly this is small comfort for the fact that hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplant in the first place, but it’s consolation in this unfortunate situation nonetheless.
A small study – involving 34 patients with HCV who had liver transplants – recently showed that the hepatitis C infection appears to make organ rejection less likely. This study was inspired by prior research in animal models demonstrating that transplantation tolerance is affected by pathogens that interact with the immune system of the host.
In the current study, fully half (17 of the 34 patients) successfully stopped taking immune-suppressing medications after their liver transplants. These patients are thought to be benefiting from HCV’s tendency to alter immune responses which would otherwise contribute to organ rejection. In fact, the virus appears to lessen organ rejection to a greater degree even than the immune-suppressing drugs.
Although this study is small, it could have a big effect on HCV-infected liver transplant recipients, in terms of discontinuing immunosuppressive medication. These medications come with a high price in side effects (including a rebound in the ferocity of HCV damaging the new liver), so patients benefit greatly if they can stop the drugs and still have their body accept the new organ.