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Original article
Hepatitis delta virus persists during liver regeneration and is amplified through cell division both in vitro and in vivo
  1. Katja Giersch1,
  2. Oliver D Bhadra1,
  3. Tassilo Volz1,
  4. Lena Allweiss1,
  5. Kristoffer Riecken2,
  6. Boris Fehse2,
  7. Ansgar W Lohse1,3,
  8. Joerg Petersen4,
  9. Camille Sureau5,
  10. Stephan Urban3,6,
  11. Maura Dandri1,3,
  12. Marc Lütgehetmann7
  1. 1 I. Department of Internal Medicine, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany
  2. 2 Department of Stem Cell transplantation, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany
  3. 3 German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), Hamburg-Lübeck-Borstel and Heidelberg Partner sites, Germany
  4. 4 IFI Institute for Interdisciplinary Medicine, Asklepios Clinic St. Georg, Hamburg, Germany
  5. 5 Laboratoirede Virologie Moleculaire, INTS, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France
  6. 6 Department of Infectious Diseases, Molecular Virology, University Hospital Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany
  7. 7 Institute of Microbiology, Virology and Hygiene, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany
  1. Correspondence to Dr Maura Dandri, Department of Internal Medicine, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg 20246, Germany; m.dandri{at}uke.de and Dr Marc Lütgehetmann, Institute of Microbiology, Virology and Hygiene, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg 20246, Germany ; m.luetgehetmann{at}uke.de

Abstract

Objective Hepatitis delta virus (HDV) was shown to persist for weeks in the absence of HBV and for months after liver transplantation, demonstrating the ability of HDV to persevere in quiescent hepatocytes. The aim of the study was to evaluate the impact of cell proliferation on HDV persistence in vitro and in vivo.

Design Genetically labelled human sodium taurocholate cotransporting polypeptide (hNTCP)-transduced human hepatoma(HepG2) cells were infected with HBV/HDV and passaged every 7 days for 100 days in the presence of the entry inhibitor Myrcludex-B. In vivo, cell proliferation was triggered by transplanting primary human hepatocytes (PHHs) isolated from HBV/HDV-infected humanised mice into naïve recipients. Virological parameters were measured by quantitative real time polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR). Hepatitis delta antigen (HDAg), hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg) and cell proliferation were determined by immunofluorescence.

Results Despite 15 in vitro cell passages and block of viral spreading by Myrcludex-B, clonal cell expansion permitted amplification of HDV infection. In vivo, expansion of PHHs isolated from HBV/HDV-infected humanised mice was confirmed 3 days, 2, 4 and 8 weeks after transplantation. While HBV markers rapidly dropped in proliferating PHHs, HDAg-positive hepatocytes were observed among dividing cells at all time points. Notably, HDAg-positive cells appeared in clusters, indicating that HDV was transmitted to daughter cells during liver regeneration even in the absence of de novo infection.

Conclusion This study demonstrates that HDV persists during liver regeneration by transmitting HDV RNA to dividing cells even in the absence of HBV coinfection. The strong persistence capacities of HDV may also explain why HDV clearance is difficult to achieve in HBV/HDV chronically infected patients.

  • hepatitis d
  • hepatocyte
  • cell proliferation
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Significance of this study

What is already known on this subject?

  • Hepatitis delta virus (HDV) leads to the most severe clinical course among hepatitis infections.

  • HDV can persist in quiescent hepatocytes for weeks in the absence of HBV coinfection in vivo (human liver chimeric mice) and for months after liver transplantation in patients.

  • Proliferation of HBV-infected human hepatocytes promotes strong covalently closed circular DNA destabilisation and its clearance in the great majority of cells.

What are the new findings?

  • HDV endures cell division in vitro (HepG2-hNTCP cells) and in vivo (human liver chimeric mice).

  • Cell division leads to the clonal expansion of HDV-positive cell clusters. This mechanism enables HDV to propagate among daughter cells even in the absence of HBV coinfection and despite the presence of the entry inhibitor Myrcludex-B.

How might it impact on clinical practice in the foreseeable future?

  • Our findings highlight the strong survival capacities of HDV in human hepatocytes and explain why HDV clearance is difficult to achieve in HBV/HDV chronically infected patients.

Introduction

It is estimated that more than 15 million individuals worldwide are chronically infected with the hepatitis delta virus (HDV),1 the smallest human pathogenic virus known. Infections are associated with severe liver disease and progression to cirrhosis, liver decompensation, hepatocellular carcinoma and death.2 The HDV genome is a circular, negative, single-stranded genomic RNA, which folds into an unbranched rod-like structure with many paired nucleotides.3 During replication in human hepatocytes, HDV redirects the host RNA polymerase II to propagate the viral genome in an RNA-directed RNA replication via a double rolling-circle amplification process,4 leading to the accumulation of two additional RNAs. The antigenomic RNA is an exact complement of the genome and the smaller linear mRNA encodes for the only known viral protein, the hepatitis delta antigen (HDAg), which occurs in two different forms. The small HDAg (24 kDa) is important for virus replication, whereas the large variant (27 kDa) generated by a post-transcriptional, RNA-specific adenosine deaminase-mediated RNA-editing event inhibits replication and promotes virion assembly.5 6 The balance between viral replication and assembly is conducted by the ratio of small and large HDAg and by different post-translational modifications such as prenylation, phosphorylation, methylation, acetylation and sumoylation.7 Due to its simplicity in structure and the lack of its own viral polymerase, therapy options for HDV are very limited. No HDV-specific treatment exists until now, and currently the only approved drug is pegylated interferon-α, which shows unsatisfactory outcomes in HDV-infected individuals, leading to HDV clearance in approximately one-third of treated patients only.8–11 Potent nucleosid(t)e analogues (NUCs) efficiently suppressing HBV replication do not show beneficial effects against HDV infection.12–14 One of the few new therapeutic approaches is the synthetic lipopeptide derived from the preS1 domain of the HBV envelope Myrcludex-B, which was shown to bind the HBV/HDV receptor hNTCP (SLC10A1) and inhibit viral entry in HBV15 16 and HDV infections.17 HDV is a defective virus which requires the three HBV envelope proteins, termed small, medium and large hepatitis B surface antigens (HBsAg) to package infectious particles and spread.18 Thus, HBV plays an essential role as helper virus for HDV transmission and HDV infection usually occurs either upon simultaneous coinfection with HBV or as a superinfection in individuals already infected with HBV. In specific clinical cases, HDV infection was shown to persist in patients for years in the presence of low levels of HBV replication19 20 and HDAg-positive cells have been observed up to 19 months after liver transplantation without evidence of HBV replication.21 22 An experimental study in woodchucks showed that HDV monoinfection might last at least 1 month,23 whereas studies in chimpanzees indicated HDV persistence for only 1 week.24 Previously, we provided evidence that HDV can infect and persist within quiescent human hepatocytes in the liver of humanised uPA/SCID/beige (USB) mice for at least 6 weeks in the absence of HBV and that persisting HDV monoinfection can be converted into a productive HBV/HDV coinfection by superinfection with HBV.25 However, apart from a previous in vitro study indicating that HDV can survive cell expansion for at least 4 weeks when transfected with liposomes into different cell lines,26 little is known about the impact of human hepatocyte proliferation on the persistence of HDV infection. Of note, we recently showed that proliferation of human hepatocytes significantly destabilises the HBV DNA persistence form, the covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) minichromosome,27 leading to its clearance in the majority of HBV-infected cells. Since HDV needs HBV coinfection or at least production of HBV envelope proteins to spread, it could be hypothesised that cccDNA loss mediated by cell division would also impair maintenance of HDV infection. However, HDV might behave differently during cell division than the HBV cccDNA, thus enabling HDV persistence. The objective of this study was to assess the fate of HDV during cell division both in vitro, using infected hNTCP-transduced hepatoma cell lines, which were also genetically labelled (red green blue (RGB) marking) to monitor clonal cell tracking,28 29 and in vivo using HBV/HDV-infected human liver chimeric USB mice. Both in vitro and in vivo experiments revealed maintenance of HDV infection and replication among dividing human hepatoma cells and primary human hepatocytes even in the absence of HBV or after Myrcludex-B-mediated inhibition of de novo infection, thus highlighting the great endurance capacities of HDV.

Materials and methods

Infection experiments with HepG2-hNTCP and HepG2-hNTCP-RGB cells

The procedures used to generate HepG2 cells stably expressing the HBV/HDV entry receptor hNTCP (SLC10A1), as well as the RGB marking for clonal tracking were reported previously28–30 (see also online supplementary material and methods). Briefly, HepG2-hNTCP were transduced simultaneously with equal amounts of three lentiviral vectors, LeGO-C2-Puro+ (expressing mCherry, red), LeGO-V2-Puro+ (expressing Venus, green) and LeGO-Cer2-Puro+ (expressing Cerulean, blue). For infection studies, HepG2-hNTCP and HepG2-hNTCP-RGB cells were plated into 4-chamber polystyrene vessel tissue culture-treated glass slides (Falcon, Thermo Fischer Scientific, Waltham, USA) and infected once with culture-derived HDV (experiment 1) or HBV/HDV-positive patient serum serially passaged in mice (experiment 2) (virus genome equivalents per cell=1, HDV genotype 1, HBV genotype D). Such inoculation conditions are sufficient to infect around 2–3% of hNTCP-HepG2 cells with HDV, but they are not sufficient to achieve detectable HBV infection, since hepatoma cell lines are generally poorly susceptible and need 100–1000-fold higher HBV inocula to infect a significant proportion of cells. Cell culture-derived HDV particles were generated in HuH7 cells as previously described.31 In brief, cells were transfected with 1 µg of the HDV recombinant plasmid pSVL(D3) (kindly provided by John Taylor) and 1 µg of the HBV envelope-expressing vector pT7HB2.7 using Fugene HD Transfection Reagent (Promega, Madison, USA). Infected cells were passaged 2 days post-infection (p.i.) and for the following 100 days once a week in a ratio of 1:3. From 2 days p.i. until day 100, 0.4 µg/mL of the entry inhibitor Myrcludex-B was applied to the cell culture media. Two independent experiments were performed. To generate isolated cell clusters, HepG2-hNTCP-RGB cells were additionally passaged 1:40.

Supplementary file 1

Generation of humanised mice, viral infection and treatment

Humanised liver chimeric mice were generated by injecting intrasplenically 1 million viable human hepatocytes in young homozygous USB mice as reported previously.17 In vivo cell proliferation was triggered by serially transplanting primary human hepatocytes (PHHs) isolated from an HBV/HDV-infected humanised mouse (which had a viraemia of 1.1×107 copies HBV DNA/mL and 4.4×106 copies HDV RNA/mL) into naïve recipients (n=14). Sera from humanised mice which were coinfected with patient-derived HBV (genotype D)/HDV (genotype 1) were employed to infect the donor mouse used in this study. One group of mice received Myrcludex-B (2 mg/kg body weight) subcutaneously every other day from week 2 to week 8 post-transplantation. Animals were maintained under specific pathogen-free conditions in accordance with institutional guidelines under approved protocols. Human cell repopulation rates were estimated by determining human serum albumin concentrations in mouse sera (Bethyl Laboratories, Biomol GmbH, Hamburg, Germany) and confirmed at sacrifice by determining human cell contents by histology and qRT-PCR using the beta-globin gene kit (Roche DNA Control Kit, Roche Diagnostics).17 Mice were sacrificed 3 days, 2, 4 and 8 weeks (n=3 for each time point) after serial transplantation and liver specimens were cryoconserved in chilled isopentane and stored at −80°C for further histological and molecular analyses. All animal experiments were conducted in accordance with the European Communities Council Directive (86/609/EEC) and were approved by the City of Hamburg, Germany.

Virological measurements, HDV RNA genome sequencing, immunofluorescence and statistics can be found in the online supplementary material and methods.

Results

Persistence of HDAg and HDV RNA in proliferating HepG2-hNTCP cells

In two independent experiments, HepG2-hNTCP cells were infected once with an HBV/HDV-positive inoculum (using the same amount of genome equivalents per cell for both viruses and experiments), passaged 2 days p.i. and then weekly for 100 days. From day 2 p.i. until the end of the experiment, culture media were supplemented with the entry inhibitor Myrcludex-B to inhibit viral spreading and reinfection (experimental design, figure 1A). Because of the low amount of HBV inoculum used, HBcAg staining and HBsAg levels in the supernatant remained below detection at all observation times (data not shown). However, immunofluorescence staining of infected HepG2-hNTCP cells showed the presence of HDAg-positive cells at all time points p.i. (figure 1B-F). Notably, at 5 days p.i., a few scattered cells were HDAg positive (median 2.4%) (figure 1B), whereas after passaging, HDV-infected cells appeared in cell clusters (figure 1C-F), suggesting that HDV persisted and was distributed among daughter cells during cell division. Despite the strong cell dilution caused by in vitro cell passages (1:1.4×107 at the end of the experiment), the median amount of HDAg-positive cells was 5.4% in experiment 1 and 4.3% in experiment 2 until day 65 p.i. (figure 1C, D) and then slowly decreased (median 2.0% at day 72/79 and 1.4% at day 93/100 in both experiments) (figure 1E, F). To confirm the proliferative potential of HDV-infected cells, we performed immunofluorescence costaining for HDAg and Ki67, a protein, which is expressed during all active phases of the cell cycle (G1, S, G2 and mitosis), but is absent in resting cells (G0). As exemplary shown in figure 1G, HDAg/hKi67 costaining demonstrated the presence of double-positive cells (eg, at day 16 p.i.). Counting of Ki67-positive cell nuclei also indicated that the proliferative potential of HDAg-positive cells did not differ significantly between HDV-infected and HDV-uninfected cells (eg, median 25.5% and 19.3% at day 23 and 9.6% and 8.5% at day 44 p.i., respectively).

Figure 1

Experimental design and hepatitis delta antigen (HDAg) immunofluorescence staining in proliferating HepG2-hNTCP cells. (A) In two independent experiments, HepG2-hNTCP cells were infected with HBV/hepatitis delta virus (HDV) and passaged weekly for 100 days. At the end of the experiment, infected cells had been diluted 1.4×107 times. The culture medium was supplemented with Myrcludex-B (0.4 µg/mL). (B) Immunofluorescence staining (10x magnification) showed that 5 days post-infection (p.i.) a few scattered cells (nuclei, Hoechst, blue) were positive for HDAg (red). ((C)–(F)) After passaging, HDAg-positive cells appeared in clusters at different time points (C): day 16 p.i., (D): day 44 p.i., (E): day 72 p.i. and (F): day 93 p.i.). ((C), (D)) Despite a strong cell dilution, the amount of HDAg-positive cells remained stable after each cell harvesting for several weeks. (G) Immunofluorescence staining (40x magnification) showed that several HDAg-positive (red) HepG2-hNTCP cells (nuclei, Hoechst, blue) were also positive for the proliferation marker Ki67 (green) at different time points p.i. (day 16 p.i.).

In the same experimental setting, HDV RNA levels (expression relative to human glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (hGAPDH)) appeared stable until day 65 p.i. (experiment 1: median 3.8×10–3 and experiment 2: 2.2×10–4 HDV RNA/hGAPDH) in both experiments and remained detectable until day 100 p.i. (figure 2A). On the contrary, HBV RNA levels rapidly dropped after infection in the setting of cell proliferation and HBV transcript levels were below detection already at day 30 p.i. in both independently performed experiments (figure 2A). Notably, both genomic and antigenomic HDV RNAs were detectable at all time points with a constant ratio (median 10.2) until day 100 p.i. (figure 2B). Furthermore, both levels of genomic and antigenomic HDV RNA remained relatively constant until day 65 p.i. and only slowly decreased thereafter (figure 2B), indicating that HDV replicated within daughter cells. To note, hGAPDH remained stable at all time points during both in vitro experiments (figure 2C), demonstrating that the amount of HepG2-hNTCP cells and proliferation capacities remained comparable after each passage. Sequencing of the HDV RNA genome revealed that cell division did not lead to substantial nucleotide changes of the virus genome, since only very few mutations occurred at later time points when cells already extensively proliferated. The most prominent mutation observed was a shift at the RNA-editing site towards HDV genomes that encode for the large HDAg and which could be responsible for the reduction of HDV RNA and HDAg-positive cells towards the end of the experiment. For more details, see online supplementary results and supplementary figure 1.

Figure 2

Hepatitis delta virus (HDV) RNA levels in HepG2-hNTCP cells and hGAPDH as a marker for the amount of cells in each well. (A) Despite cell dilution, HDV RNA levels (two red lines represent two independent experiments) relative to human GAPDH (measured by qRT-PCR) remained similar in each plate until day 65 post-infection (p.i.) and were detectable until the end of experiment (d100 p.i.), while HBV RNA (blue lines represent two independent experiments) levels rapidly dropped below the lower limit of detection (LLoD). (B) Both genomic (dark red curve) and antigenomic (light red curve) HDV RNA were detectable until day 100 p.i. (measured by a specific qRT-PCR assay). Each curve represents the median HDV RNA levels relative to human GAPDH (plus range) from the two independent experiments. The ratio of genomic to antigenomic HDV RNA remained similar (median 10.2) at all time points. (C) hGAPDH remained stable at all time points during both in vitro experiments. Each bar represents the median (plus range) of human GAPDH RNA level from the two independent experiments.

Clonal cell expansion leads to the amplification of HDV infection in HepG2-hNTCP-RGB cells

To prove that in our in vitro experimental setting HDV was amplified via cell division, HepG2-hNTCP cells were clonally labelled using RGB marking.29 To this end, cells were transduced with three lentiviral vectors, each expressing a fluorescent protein (Cerulean, blue; Venus, green and mCherry, red). By expressing the three basic colours red, green and blue within individual cells, a large number of mixed colours are generated, permanently labelling a cell and all its progeny with the same fluorescent colour.29 Transduced cells were then infected with HDV once and passaged 1 day p.i. and weekly in a ratio of 1:3 or, in order to generate isolated cell clusters, 1:40. After passaging, identically coloured cells within one colony showed that the cluster originated from the same cell. Figure 3 depicts clusters of HepG2-hNTCP-RGB daughter cells 7 days after splitting, which have the same colour and are HDAg positive (white), thus proving that HDAg transmission to daughter cells occurred through cell division.

Figure 3

Hepatitis delta antigen  (HDAg) staining in HepG2-hNTCP-RGB cells. HepG2-hNTCP-RGB cells were infected with hepatitis delta virus, passaged once and visualised in a fluorescence microscope 7 days later. Cell clusters with the same colour are daughter cells originating from the same parental cell ((A), (D), (G)). HDAg was stained using an anti-HDAg-positive human serum (white; (B), (E), (H)) and appeared in clusters of daughter cells with the same RGB colour (overlay; (C), (F), (I)). Infected cells were either passaged in a ratio of 1:3 ((A)–(F)) or to generate isolated cell clusters in a ratio of 1:40 ((G)–(I)) and stained 7 days post-infection. All images were taken with 20x magnification.

Persistence of HDAg and HDV RNA in proliferating human hepatocytes after serial transplantation in USB mice

To investigate whether HDV can also persist in proliferating primary human hepatocytes (PHHs) in vivo, we employed USB mice as a model of liver regeneration permitting proliferation of HDV-infected primary human hepatocytes that had been isolated from HBV/HDV coinfected humanised USB mice (donor mouse, figure 4A). Three days after cell transplantation, HBV monoinfected, HDV monoinfected, HBV/HDV coinfected, as well as uninfected human hepatocytes successfully engrafted and proliferated in recipient USB mouse livers (figure 4B-E). Within 2 weeks after transplantation, HBcAg became undetectable, whereas HDAg-positive human hepatocytes were detected and persisted at all time points, preferentially forming clusters similar to those observed in vitro (figure 4C-E). In line with previous studies with chronically coinfected mice,17 32 we counted that approximately 40% of PHHs were HDAg positive in the donor mouse (figure 4A) and median 32.4% of engrafted PHHs were HDAg positive at day 3. Because of the limited amount of engrafted HDAg-positive cells, many human hepatocyte clusters appeared entirely negative for HDAg in recipient mice at all time points (figure 4C-E).

Figure 4

Immunofluorescence staining in liver specimens of serial transplanted USB mice. (A) In the donor mouse, most of the human hepatocytes (CK18, light blue) were either HBV monoinfected (HBcAg, green), HDV monoinfected (HDAg, red) or HBV/HDV coinfected (yellow). (B) Three days after serial transplantation, HBV-infected, HDV-infected or HBV/HDV-infected as well as uninfected (from left to right) human hepatocytes successfully engrafted in mice livers. ((C)–(E)) At later time points ((C): 2 weeks; (D): 4 weeks, (E): 8 weeks), HDAg-positive (red), but no HBcAg-positive (green) human hepatocytes (CK18, light blue) were observed, preferentially forming HDAg clusters (upper row). At the same time points, many clusters of human hepatocytes (CK18, light blue) were also found, which were entirely uninfected (lower row). Nuclei are stained with Hoechst (blue). All images were taken with 20x magnification.

In line with our previous study,27 the greatest expansion of human hepatocytes (qRT-PCR of human beta-globin DNA) is observed within the first 4 weeks and in particular in the first 2 weeks post-transplantation (figure 5A). During this proliferation period, HBV viraemia rapidly dropped (figure 5B) and accordingly, intrahepatic HBV markers strongly decreased (eg, pregenomic HBV RNA (pgRNA) and HBV DNA per cell, see online  supplementary figure 2) or were below the detection limit (circulating HBsAg and cccDNA per cell). Due to the decreasing levels of HBV infection, HDV viraemia remained low till week 2 and was below detection at 4 and 8 weeks after serial transplantation (figure 5C). Intrahepatic HDV RNA (per ng liver RNA) appeared very low 3 days post-transplantation, when the number of engrafted PHHs was still low. However, compared with day 3 post-transplantation, HDV RNA amounts were significantly higher at all later time points (figure 5D). In line, genomic and antigenomic HDV RNAs were determined with a similar ratio (median 8.3) at all time points after serial transplantation (figure 5E), again indicating that HDV persisted and replicated in proliferating human hepatocytes in vivo.

Figure 5

Viral parameters in humanised uPA/SCID/beige (USB) mice. (A) After transplantation of liver cells, the amount of human hepatocytes (copies beta-globin/µg DNA) strongly increased in recipient USB mice until week 8. (B) HBV viraemia rapidly dropped below the lower limit of detection (LLoD) after serial transplantation. (C) Due to the absence of HBV, no hepatitis delta virus (HDV) viraemia was detected from 4 weeks after transplantation onwards. (D) Intrahepatic HDV RNA levels (in copies/ng RNA) were determined at all time points after serial transplantation. (E) Both genomic (dark grey bars) and antigenomic (light grey bars) HDV RNA (in copies/ng RNA) were detectable and the ratio of genomic to antigenomic HDV RNA remained similar (median 8.3) at all time points. ((A)–(E)) Bars show median and range levels. n=3 for every time point. In (D) three liver specimens per mouse and in (E) one liver specimen per mouse with detectable average HDV RNA levels were analysed. d, days; w, weeks.

HDV propagates among daughter cells in vivo even when NTCP-dependent viral entry is efficiently blocked

To exclude the possibility that maintenance and increase of intrahepatic HDV loads were due to reinfection of human hepatocytes from the low amounts of HDV particles still circulating in the blood of serially transplanted mice, we performed new experiments by transplanting HBV/HDV coinfected human hepatocytes into naïve recipients and treated these animals daily with the entry inhibitor Myrcludex B (from week 2 to 8 post-transplantation). As observed in the first in vivo experiment performed without efficient block of NTCP-dependent viral entry, HBV and HDV viraemia rapidly dropped after transplantation and HBcAg immunofluorescence staining was negative at all time points (figure 6). In contrast, HDAg-positive human hepatocytes were detected at all times and preferentially formed clusters (figure 6A), further demonstrating that HDV propagated among proliferating cells even when extracellular infection from circulating virions was blocked by Myrcludex-B administration. In line with the in vitro studies, HDAg-positive human hepatocytes appeared in clusters. Immunofluorescence costaining for HDAg and the proliferation marker Ki67 revealed the presence of double-positive human hepatocytes, thus proving that HDV-infected hepatocytes have proliferation potential and that HDV endured cell division in vivo (figure 6B). An estimation of the amount of Ki67-positive human hepatocytes performed at 2 weeks after transplantation indicated that approximately 13.2% of the uninfected PHHs and 8.8% of the HDAg-positive cells were Ki67 positive.

Figure 6

Immunofluorescence staining in liver specimens of Myrcludex-B treated humanised uPA/SCID/beige (USB) mice. (A) In the setting of cell proliferation, hepatitis delta antigen (HDAg)-positive (=red) human hepatocytes (CK18, cyan; Hoechst, blue) appeared in clusters also when Myrcludex-B was administered daily (to avoid HBV/hepatitis delta virus (HDV) spreading and de novo infection). This picture exemplarily shows a liver specimen 4 weeks after serial transplantation. (B) Ki67 (green)–HDAg (red) coimmunofluorescence staining indicated that HDAg-positive (=red) human hepatocytes (Calnexin, cyan) were able to proliferate or have a proliferation potential (double-positive cell, yellow, arrow) in vivo (4 weeks post serial transplantation). (C) In mice where human hepatocyte engraftment was completed (>8 weeks post-transplantation) and which were infected with HDV alone for 3 weeks, only a few scattered human hepatocytes were HDAg positive (=red). (D) Also, in humanised mice which were HBV/HDV coinfected for 3 weeks, HDAg-positive cells appeared in a scattered pattern and no clusters were observed. Images were taken with 20x magnification.

When humanised mice were inoculated with HDV alone (figure 6C and ref 25) or together with HBV (figure 6D and ref 17) in a setting where proliferation of human hepatocytes was already accomplished (8 weeks after transplantation), HDAg-positive cells appeared in scattered patterns. Altogether, these analyses show that the appearance of clusters of HDAg-positive cells is exclusively observed in experimental settings with proliferating human hepatocytes.

Discussion

Clinical observations already indicated that HDV persists for years in patients even in the presence of low levels of HBV replication19 20 and HDAg-positive hepatocytes were observed up to 19 months after liver transplantation without evidence of HBV coinfection.21 22 In a recent study, we also provided evidence that HDV RNA and HDAg can persist within human hepatocytes in the liver of humanised USB mice for at least 6 weeks in the absence of HBV.25 Moreover, we showed that HDV monoinfection can be promptly rescued by HBV superinfection. This efficient conversion of a latent HDV monoinfection to a productive HBV/HDV coinfection may contribute to the persistence of HDV in vivo.25 Although those data have shown that HDV is able to persist intracellularly in quiescent hepatocytes, little is known about the impact of cell division on the persistence of HDV. Immune-mediated hepatocyte death and compensatory liver regeneration occur both during resolution of self-limiting viral hepatitis infection and in the setting of chronic infection, when repeated attempts of the immune system to clear the infection lead to viral load changes and fluctuation of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels.33–35 Therefore, hepatocyte turnover may have a profound impact on viral infection.

Two new HDV infection models were established recently to investigate the replication cycle of HDV and interactions with the human hepatocytes: hepatoma cell lines transduced with hNTCP,36 37 the entry receptor for HBV and HDV, and human liver chimeric USB mice.17 In this study, we infected HepG2-hNTCP cells and humanised mice with cell culture-derived HDV particles or with an HBV/HDV-positive serum to demonstrate that HDV can efficiently endure cell proliferation both in vitro and in vivo.

In vitro, upon infection of HepG2-hNTCP cells with HDV, cells were passaged once a week and culture medium was supplemented with the entry inhibitor Myrcludex-B to exclude the occurrence of HDV spreading and NTCP-mediated de novo infection events. Despite the high cell dilution (1:1.4×107 at the end of the experiment), genomic and antigenomic HDV RNAs, as well as HDAg remained stable until day 65 p.i. (nine passages) and were detectable at least until day 100 p.i., demonstrating that HDV persisted during cell proliferation and that intracellular HDV replication was maintained for at least 9 weeks. This observation is in line with previous in vitro transfection studies documenting the presence of HDV-positive cells for at least 4 weeks in passaged cell cultures.26 However, the RGB marking also indicated that HDV spread mostly occurred through clonal cell expansion, whereas the lack of spreading to cells in close proximity or adjacent to an HDV-positive cell of a different clone strongly suggested that additional types of cell-to-cell transmission (eg, through cell junctions) did not play a significant role in this experimental setting.

Here we show that HDV can survive cell division also in vivo by using USB mice, which were transplanted with PHHs isolated from a HBV/HDV-infected mouse donor. This experimental setting enables infected human hepatocytes to proliferate within the regenerating liver of young mice for around 8 weeks post-transplantation. As recently shown,27 in vivo proliferation of HBV-infected human hepatocytes caused a rapid drop of all serological and intrahepatic HBV markers, including cccDNA. Here, we show that although only one-third of human hepatocytes were HDAg positive 3 days post-transplantation, HDV RNAs and HDAg-positive cells were still detected at later time points during cell proliferation and appeared to form clusters of HDAg-positive human hepatocytes. Together with these HDV-positive cells, uninfected human hepatocytes also engrafted and proliferated in these mice. While a substantial amount of uninfected PHHs was derived from cells that were already uninfected or HBV monoinfected in the donor mouse, some HDV-infected cells might have lost HDV RNA during proliferation. Although occurrence of HDV loss by cell division cannot be excluded, our results show that this mechanism was not sufficient to promote HDV clearance. In contrast, HDV transmission among dividing cells appeared determinant to maintain and even increase intrahepatic HDV infection. The same unique pattern of cell clusters was also evident when Myrcludex-B was administered to exclude NTCP-mediated viral spreading and to confirm the occurrence of HDV propagation among dividing cells. Conversely, HDV-positive human hepatocytes appeared in a scattered pattern17 25 when HDV inoculation, either as monoinfection or coinfection, was performed at a time when engraftment of human hepatocytes was already completed (non-dividing cells), thus indicating that the formation of HDV-positive cell clusters strongly depends on cell proliferation. Moreover, our study indicates that even in vivo other possible NTCP-independent spread mechanisms (eg, exosome-mediated) did not contribute significantly to HDV spreading in the absence of HBV, since a scattered distribution of HDV-positive cells was not observed in the setting of cell proliferation. Altogether, our study shows that the persistence capacity of HDV in proliferating hNTCP-transduced HepG2 cells and human hepatocytes in vivo is remarkable. It should be noted that, in principle, the large amounts of HDV RNAs present in infected hepatocyte nuclei may favour ‘per se’ the persistence of sufficient HDV RNA molecules, from which intracellular HDV RNA replication can be re-established after cell division and despite the absence of HBV. Nonetheless, HDV RNA is known to share structural and functional characteristics with some plant viruses.38 Some of these, like the dsRNA viruses from the family of Endornaviridae, Totiviridae or Crysoviridae, do not form infectious virions and were shown to rely on transmission and spreading of viral RNA through cell division.39 In vitro studies also showed that spread of viruses with negative-stranded RNA genome (eg, the Marburg virus) was promoted via cell division.40 On the other hand, various human RNA and DNA viruses (eg, HCV, ZIKA and HBV) are known to affect the cell cycle by arresting cells in the G1 or G2 phase.41–43 This effect may be beneficial for the virus, since it favours high intracellular virus replication by enabling access to deoxynucleotides  (dNTPs) and reducing T cell recognition of infected cells.44 Regarding the proliferative capacity of HDV monoinfected cells in comparison with uninfected cells, we did not determine significant differences in our experimental settings, which is in contrast to a previous in vitro study40 and thus suggests that further studies may be needed to address this question in more detail. However, it is plausible thatfrom an evolutionary point of viewHDV may rather rely on HBV coinfection than hepatocyte division for spreading. Yet, considering that HDV monoinfection can promptly be converted into a productive HBV/HDV coinfection upon superinfection with HBV,25 these findings underline the great perseverance capacities of this defective virus and may also explain why intrahepatic HDV clearance is rarely achieved in HBV/HDV chronically infected patients despite low levels of intrahepatic HBV infection and/or treatment with HBV polymerase inhibitors.

In chronic HBV/HDV-infected patients, the hepatocytes may not proliferate as much as in our experimental settings. However, elevated ALT levels are common in infected patients and thought to reflect ongoing inflammation, intrahepatic cell death and turnover. Thus, in the absence of efficient immune-mediated HDV-specific cell killing, compensatory cell proliferation may generate clones of HDV-infected cells, thus promoting HDV persistence and perhaps even amplification, provided HDV-infected cells bear some survival advantages. Consequently, our findings suggest that treatments able to lower inflammation and cell turnover would also hinder expansion of HDV-infected hepatocytes. In this regard, it is worth noting that treatment with Myrcludex-B in HBV/HDV-infected patients was associated with the reduction of HDV viraemia and, most remarkably, of ALT levels.45 Although the underlying molecular mechanisms remain to be elucidated, this clinical trial raises the hope that the use of an entry inhibitor in the context of low rates of cell proliferation promotes a net reduction of intrahepatic HDV infection.

Taken together, the persistence capacity of HDV determined here and in previous studies highlights the importance to develop antivirals, which directly target HDV replication in combination with reinfection of human hepatocytes.

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to A Groth and R Reusch for excellent assistance with the mouse colony and C Dettmer for the great technical help.

References

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Footnotes

  • KG, ODB, MD and ML contributed equally.

  • Contributors ML and MD initiated and supervised the study. ML, MD, KG and ODB designed experiments and analysed data. KG, LA and TV generated chimeric mice and analysed data. ODB and KG performed virological and immunohistological analyses. KR and BF provided HepG2 (human hepatoma)-hNTCP (human sodium taurocholate cotransporting polypeptide) cells and red green blue-marked HepG2-hNTCP cells. CS provided infectious hepatitis delta virus. SU provided Myrcludex-B. KG, ODB, MD and ML wrote the manuscript. KR, BF, AWL, JP, CS and SU discussed the data and corrected the manuscript.

  • Funding The study was supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG) by a grant to MD, ML and BF (SFB 841 A5, A8, SP2) and a Heisenberg Professorship to MD (DA1063/3-2). MD and SU also received funding from the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF-BMBF; TTU-hepatitis 05.806,05.807 and 05.704). All funding sources supporting the work are acknowledged and authors have nothing to disclose.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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