Vijayaprakash Suppiah and colleagues show that genotyping hepatitis C patients for the IL28B, HLA-C, and KIR genes improves the ability to predict whether or not patients will respond to antiviral treatment.
To date, drug response genes have not proved as useful in clinical practice as was anticipated at the start of the genomic era. An exception is in the treatment of chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) genotype 1 infection with pegylated interferon-alpha and ribavirin (PegIFN/R). Viral clearance is achieved in 40%–50% of patients. Interleukin 28B (IL28B) genotype predicts treatment-induced and spontaneous clearance. To improve the predictive value of this genotype, we studied the combined effect of variants of IL28B with human leukocyte antigen C (HLA-C), and its ligands the killer immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR), which have previously been implicated in HCV viral control.
Methods and Findings
We genotyped chronic hepatitis C (CHC) genotype 1 patients with PegIFN/R treatment-induced clearance (n = 417) and treatment failure (n = 493), and 234 individuals with spontaneous clearance, for HLA-C C1 versus C2, presence of inhibitory and activating KIR genes, and two IL28B SNPs, rs8099917 and rs12979860. All individuals were Europeans or of European descent. IL28B SNP rs8099917 “G” was associated with absence of treatment-induced clearance (odds ratio [OR] 2.19, p = 1.27×10−8, 1.67–2.88) and absence of spontaneous clearance (OR 3.83, p = 1.71×10−14, 2.67–5.48) of HCV, as was rs12979860, with slightly lower ORs. The HLA-C C2C2 genotype was also over-represented in patients who failed treatment (OR 1.52, p = 0.024, 1.05–2.20), but was not associated with spontaneous clearance. Prediction of treatment failure improved from 66% with IL28B to 80% using both genes in this cohort (OR 3.78, p = 8.83×10−6, 2.03–7.04). There was evidence that KIR2DL3 and KIR2DS2 carriage also altered HCV treatment response in combination with HLA-C and IL28B.
Genotyping for IL28B, HLA-C, and KIR genes improves prediction of HCV treatment response. These findings support a role for natural killer (NK) cell activation in PegIFN/R treatment-induced clearance, partially mediated by IL28B.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
About 170 million people harbor long-term (chronic) infections with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and 3–4 million people are newly infected with the virus every year. HCV—a leading cause of chronic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)—is spread though contact with infected blood. Transmission can occur during medical procedures (for example, transfusions with unscreened blood or reuse of inadequately sterilized medical instruments) but in developed countries, where donated blood is routinely screened for HCV, the most common transmission route is needle-sharing among intravenous drug users. HCV infection can cause a short-lived illness characterized by tiredness and jaundice (yellow skin and eyes) but 70%–80% of newly infected people progress to a symptom-free, chronic infection that can eventually cause liver cirrhosis (scarring) and liver cancer. HCV infections can be treated with a combination of two drugs—pegylated interferon-alpha and ribavirin (PegIFN/R). However, PegIFN/R is expensive, causes unpleasant side-effects, and is ineffective in about half of people infected with HCV genotype 1, the commonest HCV strain.
Why Was This Study Done?
It would be extremely helpful to be able to identify which patients will respond to PegIFN/R before starting treatment. An individual's genetic make-up plays a key role in the safety and effectiveness of drugs. Thus, pharmacogenomics—the study of how genetic variants affects the body's response to drugs—has the potential to alter the clinical management of many diseases by allowing clinicians to provide individually tailored drug treatments. In 2009, scientists reported that certain single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, a type of genetic variant) lying near the IL28B gene (which encodes an immune system protein made in response to viral infections) strongly influence treatment outcomes and spontaneous clearance in HCV-infected people. This discovery is now being used to predict treatment responses to PegIFN/R in clinical practice but genotyping (analysis of variants of) IL28B only correctly predicts treatment failure two-thirds of the time. Here, the researchers investigate whether genotyping two additional regions of the genome—the HLA-C and KIR gene loci—can improve the predictive value of IL28B genotyping. Human leukocyte antigen C (HLA-C) and the killer immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs) are interacting proteins that have been implicated in HCV viral control.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers genotyped 417 patients chronically infected with HCV genotype 1 whose infection had been cleared by PegIFN/R treatment, 493 patients whose infection had not responded to treatment, and 234 patients whose infection had cleared spontaneously for two HLA-C variants (C1 and C2), the presence of several KIR genes (individuals carry different combinations of KIR genes), and two IL28B SNPs (rs8099917 and rs12979860). Carriage of “variants” of either IL28B SNP was associated with absence of treatment-induced clearance and absence of spontaneous clearance. That is, these variant SNPs were found more often in patients who did not respond to treatment than in those who did respond, and more often in patients who did not have spontaneous clearance of their infection than those who did. The HLA-C C2C2 genotype (there are two copies of most genes in the genome) was also more common in patients who failed treatment than in those who responded but was not associated with spontaneous clearance. The rate of correct prediction of treatment failure increased from 66% with IL28B genotyping alone to 80% with combined IL28B and HLA-C genotyping. Finally, carriage of specific KIR genes in combination with specific HLA-C and IL28B variants was also associated with an altered HCV treatment response.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that the addition of HCL-C and KIR genotyping to IL28B genotyping improved the prediction of HCV treatment response in the patients investigated in this study. Because all these patients were European or of European descent, these findings need confirming in people of other ethnic backgrounds. They also need confirming in other groups of Europeans before being used in a clinical setting. However, the discovery that the addition of HLA-C genotyping to IL28B genotyping raises the rate of correct prediction of PegIFN/R treatment failure to 80% is extremely promising and should improve the clinical management of patients infected with HCV genotype 1. In addition, these results provide new insights into how PegIFN/R clears HCV infections that may lead to improved therapies in the future.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001092.
The World Health Organization provides detailed information about hepatitis C (in several languages)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on hepatitis C for the public and for health professionals (information is also available in Spanish)
The US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases provides basic information on hepatitis C (in English and Spanish)
The Hepatitis C Trust is a patient-led, patient-run UK charity that provides detailed information about hepatitis C and support for patients and their families; a selection of personal stories about patients' experiences with hepatitis C is available, including Phil's treatment story, which details the ups and downs of treatment with PegIFN/R
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources on hepatitis C
The Human Genome Project provides information about medicine and the new genetics, including a primer on pharmacogenomics