Chronic hepatitis C progresses to cirrhosis within 20 years in an estimated 20-30% of patients, while running a relatively uneventful course in most others. Certain HCV proteins, such as core and NS5A, can induce derangement of lipid metabolism or alter signal transduction of infected hepatocytes which leads to the production of reactive oxygen radicals and profibrogenic mediators, in particular TGF-beta1. TGF-beta1 is the strongest known inducer of fibrogenesis in the effector cells of hepatic fibrosis, i.e. activated hepatic stellate cells and myofibroblasts. However, fibrogenesis proceeds only when additional profibrogenic stimuli are present, e.g. alcohol exposure, metabolic disorders such as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or coinfections with HIV or Schistosoma mansoni that skew the immune response towards a Th2 T cell reaction. Furthermore, profibrogenic polymorphisms in genes that are relevant during fibrogenesis have been disclosed. This knowledge will make it possible to identify those patients who are most likely to progress and who need antiviral or antifibrotic therapies most urgently. However, even the best available treatment, the combination of pegylated interferon and ribavirin, which is costly and fraught with side effects, eradicates HCV in only 50% of patients. While the suggestive antifibrotic effect of interferons (IF-gamma>alpha,beta), irrespective of viral elimination, has to be proven in randomised prospective studies, additional, well tolerated and cost-effective antifibrotic therapies have to be developed. The combination of cytokine strategies, e.g. inhibition of the key profibrogenic mediator TGF-beta, with other potential antifibrotic agents appears promising. Such adjunctive agents could be silymarin, sho-saiko-to, halofuginone, phosphodiesterase inhibitors, and endothelin-A-receptor or angiotensin antagonists. Furthermore, drug targeting to the fibrogenic effector cells appears feasible. Together with the evolving validation of serological markers of hepatic fibrogenesis and fibrolysis an effective and individualised treatment of liver fibrosis is anticipated.
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