BACKGROUND/AIMS: Recent studies in adult patients have established a relationship between hepatitis C virus infection and the presence of liver-kidney microsomal autoantibody type 1 (LKM1). Conversely, little is known regarding the relationship between hepatitis C and autoimmunity in children. In this study, we investigated non-organ specific autoantibodies in 40 otherwise healthy Italian children with chronic hepatitis C. METHODS: All but four patients included in the study were asymptomatic. Liver histology, obtained in 35, showed features ranging from minimal to mild chronic hepatitis. Autoantibodies were investigated by indirect immunofluorescence. HCV RNA was assayed by the polymerase chain reaction in 34 cases and viral genotypes were determined. RESULTS: Antinuclear antibodies were detected in three (7.5%) cases, one with a homogeneous pattern; smooth muscle autoantibodies in seven (17.5%) cases, always with V (vessels only) specificity and LKM1 in four (10%), at titers ranging from 1:20 and 1:2560. Clinical and virologic features did not significantly differ between autoantibody positive and negative cases, although infections with HCV genotypes 1a and 2 were more frequent in LKM1-positive patients. During observation, the child with the highest LKM1 titre was unsuccessfully treated with alpha interferon but responded to steroids. Twelve LKM1 negative children were also treated with interferon and one developed low LKM1 titers concomitant with an alanine aminotransferase flare. The sera of the five LKM1-positive children with investigated by immunoblotting with a human microsomal fraction and peptide 257-269 of cytochrome P450IID6. Only the serum of the child with the highest LKM1 titers was reactive. CONCLUSIONS: These results show that a consistent proportion of children with chronic hepatitis C circulate non-organ specific autoantibodies. The prevalence of LKM1 is greater than in adults and this could raise problems for the treatment of the disease with interferon. The analysis of LKM1 target antigens might help to identify putative cases of "true" autoimmune hepatitis with concomitant HCV infection that could benefit from steroid treatment.
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