Intrahepatic innate immune response pathways are downregulated in untreated chronic hepatitis B
Journal of Hepatology , Volume 66 - Issue 5 p. 897- 909
Background & Aims Hepatitis B virus (HBV) persistence and the pathobiology of chronic HBV (CHB) infections result from the interplay between viral replication and host immune responses. We aimed to comprehensively analyse the expression of intrahepatic host genes as well as serum and liver HBV markers in a large cohort of untreated CHB patients. Methods One-hundred and five CHB patients untreated at the time of liver biopsy (34 HBeAg[+] and 71 HBeAg[−]) were analysed for the intrahepatic expression profile of 67 genes belonging to multiple innate immunity pathways. Results were correlated to serological (quantification of HBsAg [qHBsAg] and HBV DNA) and intrahepatic viral markers (total HBV DNA, pre-genomic RNA and covalently closed circular HBV DNA). Results Intrahepatic gene expression profiling revealed a strong downregulation of antiviral effectors, interferon stimulated genes, Toll-like and pathogen recognition receptor pathways in CHB patients as compared to non-infected controls, which was not directly correlated to HBV replication. A subset of genes [CXCL10, GBP1, IFITM1, IFNB1, IL10, IL6, ISG15, TLR3, SOCS1, SOCS3] was more repressed in HBeAg(−) respect to HBeAg(+) patients (median of serum HBV DNA 7.9 × 103 vs. 7.9 × 107 IU/ml, respectively). Notably, HBeAg(−) patients with lower qHBsAg (<5 × 103 IU/ml) showed a relief of repression of genes belonging to multiple pathways. Conclusions Our results show a strong impairment of innate immune responses in the liver of CHB patients. The association of low levels of qHBsAg with gene repression, if confirmed, might prove useful for the identification of patients who would most benefit from immune-modulators and/or HBsAg targeting agents as strategies to restore immune responsiveness. Lay summary Chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections represent a major public health problem worldwide. Over 200 million people are chronically infected and at risk of developing chronic hepatitis, liver cirrhosis and cancer. Our work aimed to understand the molecular consequences of chronic hepatitis B in the infected liver. It was conducted in a large cohort of untreated chronically infected HBV patients and analysed the expression of immunity and liver disease-related genes in the liver, with respect to markers of viral replication and persistence. Our results indicate that chronic HBV infection has a suppressive effect on immune responses, which was more pronounced with high levels of hepatitis B virus surface antigen (HBsAg). These data provide novel insight into the mechanisms of HBV persistence in the liver and suggest that approaches aimed at reducing HBsAg levels, may restore immune responsiveness against the virus.