Background & Aims: Humans are frequently exposed to hepatitis E virus (HEV). Nevertheless, the disease mainly affects pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals. Organ recipients receiving immunosuppressants, such as rapalogs, to prevent rejection have a high risk for developing chronic hepatitis following HEV infection. Rapalogs constitute potent inhibitors of mTOR including rapamycin and everolimus. As a master kinase, the mechanism-of-action of mTOR is not only associated with the immunosuppressive capacity of rapalogs but is also tightly regulated during pregnancy because of increased nutritional demands. Methods: We thus investigated the role of mTOR in HEV infection by using two state-of-the-art cell culture models: a subgenomic HEV containing luciferase reporter and a full-length HEV infectious cell culture system. Results: In both subgenomic and full-length HEV models, HEV infection was aggressively escalated by treatment of rapamycin or everolimus. Inhibition of mTOR was confirmed by Western blot showing the inhibition of its downstream target, S6 phosphorylation. Consistently, stable silencing of mTOR by lentiviral RNAi resulted in a significant increase in intracellular HEV RNA, suggesting an antiviral function of mTOR in HEV infection. By targeting a series of other up- and downstream elements of mTOR signaling, we further revealed an effective basal defense mechanism of the PI3K-PKB-mTOR pathway against HEV, which is through the phosphorylated eIF4E-binding protein 1 (4E-BP1), however independent of autophagy formation. Conclusions: The discovery that PI3K-PKB-mTOR pathway limits HEV infection through 4E-BP1 and acts as a gate-keeper in human HEV target cells bears significant implications in managing immunosuppression in HEV-infected organ transplantation recipients.

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Journal of Hepatology
Department of Gastroenterology & Hepatology

Zhou, X, Wang, Y, Metselaar, H.J, Janssen, H.L.A, Peppelenbosch, M.P, & Pan, Q. (2014). Rapamycin and everolimus facilitate hepatitis E virus replication: Revealing a basal defense mechanism of PI3K-PKB-mTOR pathway. Journal of Hepatology. doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2014.05.026