BACKGROUND & AIMSWhile the majority of HCV-infected patients progress to chronic hepatitis, a small fraction of individuals are able to clear the virus. Resolution of infection occurs within the first few weeks to months of infection, suggesting that innate immune functions may be critical for early control. Epidemiologic data support a role for particular NK cell receptor bearing populations in this control, yet the mechanism by which NK cells respond to HCV early in infection is unknown.METHODSChanges in the phenotype and function of NK cells were investigated in a cohort of 43 individuals identified during various stages of HCV infection with different clinical outcomes.RESULTSAcute, chronic, and resolved HCV infections were characterized by an expansion of CD56(neg) NK cells. Furthermore, increased levels of HLA-C-binding KIR(+) NK cells were observed in HCV resolvers, while all stages of HCV infection were associated with reduced percentages of NKG2D(+), NKp30(+), and NKp46(+) NK cells, and a slight increase in the ability of NK cells to respond to target cells bearing the ligands for these receptors. In contrast, NKG2A(+) and CD94(+) NK cells were elevated in acute and chronic HCV infection, but not in resolved infection. Most importantly, in acute infection, lower frequencies of NKp30(+), NKp46(+), CD161(+), and NKG2D(+) NK cells were observed in patients who were subsequently able to clear HCV infection than in those becoming chronically infected.CONCLUSIONSThese data implicate particular populations of NK cells in the early control and clearance of HCV infection.