Infection with hepatitis C virus (HCV), a leading cause of chronic liver diseases, can associate with B lymphocyte proliferative disorders, such as mixed cryoglobulinemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The major envelope protein of HCV (HCV-E2) binds, with high affinity CD81, a tetraspanin expressed on several cell types. Here, we show that engagement of CD81 on human B cells by a combination of HCV-E2 and an anti-CD81 mAb triggers the JNK pathway and leads to the preferential proliferation of the naïve (CD27-) B cell subset. In parallel, we have found that B lymphocytes from the great majority of chronic hepatitis C patients are activated and that naïve cells display a higher level of activation markers than memory (CD27+) B lymphocytes. Moreover, eradication of HCV infection by IFN therapy is associated with normalization of the activation-markers expression. We propose that CD81-mediated activation of B cells in vitro recapitulates the effects of HCV binding to B cell CD81 in vivo and that polyclonal proliferation of naïve B lymphocytes is a key initiating factor for the development of the HCV-associated B lymphocyte disorders
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