Published online Jun 7, 2008. doi: 10.3748/wjg.14.3306
Revised: March 29, 2008
Accepted: April 5, 2008
Published online: June 7, 2008
The histological hallmark of autoimmune hepatitis (AIH) is a dense portal mononuclear cell infiltrate that invades the surrounding parenchyma and comprises T and B lymphocytes, macrophages, and plasma cells. An unknown but powerful stimulus must be promoting the formation of this massive inflammatory cellular reaction that is likely to initiate and perpetuate liver damage. An autoimmune attack can follow different pathways to inflict damage on hepatocytes. Liver damage is likely to be orchestrated by CD4+ T lymphocytes recognizing an autoantigenic liver peptide. To trigger an autoimmune response, the peptide must be embraced by an HLA class II molecule and presented to naïve CD4+ T helper (Th0) cells by professional antigen presenting cells, with the co-stimulation of ligand-ligand fostering interaction between the two cells. Th0 cells become activated, differentiate into functional phenotypes according to the cytokines prevailing in the microenvironment and the nature of the antigen, and initiate a cascade of immune reactions determined by the cytokines produced by the activated T cells. Th1 cells, arising in the presence of the macrophage-derived interleukin (IL) -12, secrete mainly IL-2 and interferon-gamma (IFN-γ), which activate macrophages, enhance expression of HLA classI(increasing liver cell vulnerability to a CD8+ T cell cytotoxic attack), and induce expression of HLA class II molecules on hepatocytes. Th2 cells, which differentiate from Th0 if the microenvironment is rich in IL-4, produce mainly IL-4, IL-10, and IL-13 which favour autoantibody production by B lymphocytes. Physiologically, Th1 and Th2 antagonize each other. Th17 cells, a recently described population, arise in the presence of transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) and IL-6 and appear to have an important effector role in inflammation and autoimmunity. The process of autoantigen recognition is strictly controlled by regulatory mechanisms, such as those exerted by CD4+CD25+ regulatory T cells, which derive from Th0 in the presence of TGF-β, but in the absence of IL-6. If regulatory mechanisms fail, the autoimmune attack is perpetuated. Over the past three decades different aspects of the above pathogenic scenario have been investigated. In particular, a defect in immunoregulation affecting CD4+CD25+ regulatory T cells (T-regs) has been demonstrated in AIH, particularly at diagnosis or during relapse. Advances in the study of autoreactive T cells have occurred mostly in AIH type 2, since the knowledge that CYP2D6 is the main autoantigen has enabled the characterization of both CD4 and CD8 T cells targeting this cytochrome. CD4 T cells from patients with type 2 AIH positive for the predisposing HLA allele DRB1*0701 recognize seven regions of CYP2D6, five of which are also recognized by CD8 T cells. High numbers of IFN-γ producing CD4 T cells and CD8 T cells are associated with biochemical evidence of liver damage, suggesting a combined cellular immune attack.