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Pathogenesis, miR-122 gene-regulation, and protective immune responses after acute equine hepacivirus infection

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BACKGROUND & AIMS: Equine hepacivirus (EqHV) is phylogenetically the closest relative of hepatitis C virus (HCV) and shares genome organization, hepatotropism, transient or persistent infection outcome, and the ability to cause hepatitis. Thus, EqHV studies are important to understand equine liver disease, and further as an outbred surrogate animal model for HCV pathogenesis and protective immune responses. Here, we aimed to characterize the course of EqHV infection and associated protective immune responses.

APPROACH & RESULTS: Seven horses were experimentally inoculated with EqHV, monitored for 6 months, and rechallenged with the same, and subsequently a heterologous EqHV. Clearance was the primary outcome (6 of 7) and was associated with subclinical hepatitis characterized by lymphocytic infiltrate and individual hepatocyte necrosis. Seroconversion was delayed and antibody titers waned slowly. Clearance of primary infection conferred non-sterilizing immunity resulting in shortened duration of viremia after rechallenge. Peripheral blood mononuclear cell responses in horses were minimal, although EqHV specific T cells were identified. Additionally, an interferon stimulated gene signature was detected in the liver during EqHV infection, similar to acute HCV in humans. EqHV, as HCV, is stimulated by direct binding of the liver-specific microRNA, miR-122. Interestingly, we found that EqHV infection sequesters enough miR-122 to functionally affect gene regulation in the liver. This RNA-based mechanism thus could have consequences for pathology.

CONCLUSIONS: EqHV infection in horses typically has an acute resolving course, and the protective immune response lasts for at least a year and broadly attenuates subsequent infections. This could have important implications to achieve the primary goal of an HCV vaccine; to prevent chronicity while accepting acute resolving infection after virus exposure.

OriginalsprogEngelsk
TidsskriftHepatology
ISSN0270-9139
DOI
StatusE-pub ahead of print - 13 mar. 2021

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