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Hep C Tests
Serologic Tests Used to Diagnose Hepatitis C

Enzyme Immunoassay
Anti-HCV is detected by enzyme immunoassay (EIA). The third-generation test (EIA-3) used today is more sensitive and specific than previous ones. However, as with all enzyme immunoassays, false-positive results are occasionally a problem with the EIA-3. Additional or confirmatory testing is often helpful.

The best approach to confirm the diagnosis of hepatitis C is to test for HCV RNA using a sensitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay. The presence of HCV RNA in serum indicates an active infection. Testing for HCV RNA is also helpful in patients in whom EIA tests for anti-HCV are unreliable. For instance, immunocompromised patients may test negative for anti-HCV despite having HCV infection because they may not produce enough antibodies for detection with EIA. Likewise, patients with acute hepatitis may test negative for anti-HCV when the physician first tests. Antibody is present in almost all patients by 1 month after onset of acute illness; thus, patients with acute hepatitis who initially test negative may need followup testing. In these situations, HCV RNA is usually present and confirms the diagnosis.

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Recombinant Immunoblot Assay
Immunoblot assays are used to confirm anti-HCV reactivity, too. These tests are also called "Western blots"; serum is incubated on nitrocellulose strips on which four recombinant viral proteins are blotted. Color changes indicate that antibodies are adhering to the proteins. An immunoblot is considered positive if two or more proteins react and is considered indeterminate if only one positive band is detected. In some clinical situations, confirmatory testing by immunoblotting is helpful, such as for the person with anti-HCV detected by EIA who tests negative for HCV RNA. The EIA anti-HCV reactivity could represent a false-positive reaction, recovery from hepatitis C, or continued virus infection with levels of virus too low to be detected (the last occurs only rarely when sensitive PCR assays are used). If the immunoblot test for anti-HCV is positive, the patient has most likely recovered from hepatitis C and has persistent antibody without virus. If the immunoblot test is negative, the EIA result was probably a false positive.

Immunoblot tests are routine in blood banks when an anti-HCV-positive sample is found by EIA. Immunoblot assays are highly specific and valuable in verifying anti-HCV reactivity. Indeterminate tests require further followup testing, including attempts to confirm the specificity by repeat testing for HCV RNA.

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PCR Amplification
PCR amplification can detect low levels of HCV RNA in serum. Testing for HCV RNA is a reliable way of demonstrating that hepatitis C infection is present and is the most specific test for infection.

Testing for HCV RNA by PCR is particularly useful when aminotransferases are normal or only slightly elevated, when anti-HCV is not present, orwhen several causes of liver disease are possible. This method also helps diagnose hepatitis C in people who are immunosuppressed, have recently had an organ transplant, or have chronic renal failure. At present, however, there are no PCR assays approved by the Food and Drug Administration for general use, although commercial test systems are available. Many commercial laboratories offer their own PCR assays, which are not subject to strict independent quality controls. Thus, the reliability and specificity of the PCR technique are not standardized. In addition, it is expensive and prone to technical or laboratory error. When ordering HCV RNA testing by PCR, the physician should use a high-quality laboratory willing to document standardization of the test.

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Biochemical Indicators of Hepatitis C Virus Infection
In chronic hepatitis C, increases in the alanine and aspartate aminotransferases range from 0 to 20 times (but usually less than 5 times) the upper limit of normal.

Alanine aminotransferase levels are usually higher than aspartate aminotransferase levels, but that finding may be reversed in patients who have cirrhosis.

Alkaline phosphatase and gamma glutamyl transpeptidase are usually normal. If elevated, they may indicate cirrhosis.

Rheumatoid factor and low platelet and white blood cell counts are frequent in patients with cirrhosis, providing clues to the presence of advanced disease.

The enzymes lactate dehydrogenase and creatine kinase are usually normal.

Albumin levels and prothrombin time are normal until late-stage disease.

Iron and ferritin levels may be slightly elevated.

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Quantification of HCV RNA in Serum
Several methods are available for measuring the titer or level of virus in serum, which is an indirect assessment of viral load. These methods include a quantitative PCR and a branched DNA (bDNA) test. Unfortunately, these assays are not standardized, and different methods from different laboratories can provide different results on the same specimen. In addition, serum levels of HCV RNA can vary spontaneously by 3- to 10-fold over time. Nevertheless, when performed carefully, quantitative assays provide important insights into the nature of hepatitis C. Viral load does not correlate with the severity of the hepatitis or with a poor prognosis (as it seems to in HIV infection); but viral load does correlate with the likelihood of a response to antiviral therapy. Rates of response to a course of alpha interferon and ribavirin are higher in patients with low levels of HCV RNA. There are several definitions of a "low level" of HCV RNA, but the usual definition is below 2 million copies per milliliter (mL).

In addition, monitoring viral load during the early phases of treatment may provide early information on the likelihood of a response. Yet because of the shortcomings of the current assays for HCV RNA level, these tests are not reliable guides to therapy. More sensitive and reliable methods of quantitating HCV RNA in serum are needed. Until that time, these tests should not be routinely used in practice.

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Genotyping and Serotyping of HCV
There are 6 known genotypes and more than 50 subtypes of hepatitis C. The genotype of infection is helpful in defining the epidemiology of hepatitis C. Knowing the genotype or serotype (genotype-specific antibodies) of HCV is helpful in making recommendations and counseling regarding therapy.

Patients with genotypes 2 and 3 are almost three times more likely to respond to therapy with alpha interferon or the combination of alpha interferon and ribavirin. Furthermore, when using combination therapy, the recommended duration of treatment depends on the genotype. For patients with genotypes 2 and 3, a 24-week course of combination treatment is adequate, whereas for patients with genotype 1, a 48-week course is recommended. For these reasons, testing for HCV genotype is often clinically helpful. Once the genotype is identified, it need not be tested again; genotypes do not change during the course of infection.

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Normal Serum ALT Levels
Some patients with chronic hepatitis C have normal serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels, even when tested on multiple occasions. In this and other situations in which the diagnosis of chronic hepatitis C may be questioned, the diagnosis should be confirmed by testing for HCV RNA. The presence of HCV RNA indicates that the patient has ongoing viral infection despite normal ALT levels.

Liver Biopsy
Liver biopsy is not necessary for diagnosis but is helpful for grading the severity of disease and staging the degree of fibrosis and permanent architectural damage. Hematoxylin and eosin stains and Masson's trichrome stain are used to grade the amount of necrosis and inflammation and to stage the degree of fibrosis. Specific immunohistochemical stains for HCV have not been developed for routine use. Liver biopsy is also helpful in ruling out other causes of liver disease, such as alcoholic liver injury or iron overload.

HCV causes the following changes in liver tissue:
Necrosis and inflammation around the portal areas, so-called "piecemeal necrosis" or "interface hepatitis."

Necrosis of hepatocytes and focal inflammation in the liver parenchyma.

Inflammatory cells in the portal areas ("portal inflammation").

Fibrosis, with early stages being confined to the portal tracts, intermediate stages being expansion of the portal tracts and bridging between portal areas or to the central area, and late stages being frank cirrhosis characterized by architectural disruption of the liver with fibrosis and regeneration.

Grading and staging of hepatitis by assigning scores for severity are helpful in managing patients with chronic hepatitis. The degree of inflammation and necrosis can be assessed as none, minimal, mild, moderate, or severe. The degree of fibrosis can be similarly assessed. Scoring systems are particularly helpful in clinical studies on chronic hepatitis.

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Immunostaining using polyclonal or monoclonal antibodies to detect HCV antigens in the liver has been reported to be useful. However, these tests are not commercially available, and, even in the hands of research investigators, immunostaining detects HCV antigens in liver tissue in only 60 to 70 percent of patients with chronic hepatitis C--largely in those with high levels of HCV in serum. This test also requires special handling of liver tissue and thus is not appropriate fo routine clinical use.

NIH Publication No. 99-4230


    Page last updated: March 7, 2003

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