Notwithstanding numerous evidences implicating toll-like receptor-4 (TLR4) in the pathogenesis of chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, the localization and level of TLR4 expression in the liver of patients with hepatitis C have never been investigated. We aimed to evaluate, by means of immunohistochemistry and real-time PCR (rt-PCR), hepatic TLR4 expression in patients with chronic HCV infection. Fifty patients who had undergone liver biopsy and 11 patients transplanted because of chronic HCV infection, and 12 controls free of liver disease, were included in the study. Each case was analyzed by immunohistochemistry for TLR4, se smooth muscle actin and cytokeratin-7 (CK-7), and a subgroup of patients and all controls by rt-PCR for TLR4. Immunohistochemistry for a-smooth muscle actin was used to derive a score of activation of hepatic stellate cells and portal/septal myofibroblasts, while immunohistochemistry for CK-7 was used to evaluate and count hepatic progenitor cells, interlobular bile ducts and intermediate hepatocytes. In patients, the parenchymal elements responsible for the highest TLR4 level of expression were hepatic progenitor cells and biliary epithelial cells of interlobular bile ducts. Double-labeling experiments between anti-TLR4 and anti-CK7, anti-CD133, anti-CD44, anti-neural cell adhesion molecule, anti-epithelial cell adhesion molecule and anti-sex determining region Y-box 9, confirmed these findings. TLR4-positive hepatic progenitor cells and interlobular bile ducts were significantly correlated with the stage of liver disease (P<0.001), the grade of inflammation (P<0.001), and the activity of portal/septal myofibroblasts (P<0.001). rt-PCR study confirmed an increased TLR4 expression in the 26 patients analyzed with respect to controls (P<0.001). TLR4 expression positively correlated with fibrosis (P<0.05) and inflammation (P<0.05). The present results suggest that TLR4 expression by hepatic progenitor cells and biliary epithelial cells contributes to the progression of liver damage in the course of chronic HCV-related infection.