T helper lymphocytes are important regulatory cells for the immune response in chronic hepatitis C. They recognize peptides, which are generated from the viral proteins by antigen processing and are bound to MHC (major histocompatibility complex) class II molecules. However, antigen processing might also result in non-immunogenic peptide fragments that can modify T cell activation. - To identify such peptide fragments in hepatitis C, we studied binding of 15 synthetic HCV core derived peptides to MHC class II molecules of 9 human homozygous typing B cell lines (HT-BCLs) as well as T cell proliferation in 41 HLA-typed patients with chronic hepatitis C. - We identified a peptide (HCV core aa 59-83) which bound to 7 HT-BCLs, whereas PBMC of only 2 out of 36 patients with the corresponding HLA-DR alleles proliferated in response to this peptide. Competition experiments indicated that small amounts of peptide aa 59-83 specifically inhibited the proliferative response to the recombinant core protein but not to core derived immunogenic peptides. Our data show that a peptide fragment from the HCV core region aa 59-83 can interfere in vitro with immune recognition of the HCV core protein.