Hepadnavirus at very low doses establishes in woodchucks asymptomatic, serologically undetectable but molecularly evident persistent infection. This primary occult infection (POI) preferentially engages the immune system and initiates virus-specific T cell response in the absence of antiviral antibody induction. The current study aimed to determine whether POI with time may culminate in serologically identifiable infection and hepatitis, and what are, if any, its pathological consequences. Juvenile woodchucks were intravenously injected with inocula containing 10 or 100 virions of woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV) to induce POI and followed for life or up to 5.5 years thereafter. All 10 animals established molecularly detectable infection with virus DNA in serum (<100–200 copies/mL) and in circulating lymphoid cells, but serum WHV surface antigen and antibodies to WHV core antigen remained undetectable for life. By approximately 2.5–3.5 years post-infection, circulating virus transiently increased to 103 copies/mL and virus replication became detectable in the livers, but serological markers of infection and biochemical or histological evidence of hepatitis remained undetectable. Nonetheless, typical hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) developed in 2/10 animals. WHV DNA integration into hepatic and lymphatic system genomes was identified in 9/10 animals. Virus recovered from the liver virus-negative or virus-positive phases of POI displayed the wild-type sequence and transmitted infection to healthy woodchucks causing hepatitis and HCC. In summary, for the first time, our data demonstrate that an asymptomatic hepadnaviral persistence initiated by very small amounts of otherwise pathogenic virus, advancing in the absence of traditional serological markers of infection and hepatitis, coincides with virus DNA integration into the host's hepatic and immune system genomes, retains liver pro-oncogenic potency and is capable of transmitting liver pathogenic infection. This emphasizes the role for primary occult hepatitis B virus infection in the development of seemingly cyptogenic HCC in seronegative but virus DNA reactive patients.
Mulrooney-Cousins PM, Chauhan R, Churchill ND, Michalak TI (2014) Primary Seronegative but Molecularly Evident Hepadnaviral Infection Engages Liver and Induces Hepatocarcinoma in the Woodchuck Model of Hepatitis B. PLoS Pathog 10(8): e1004332. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1004332
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© 2014 Mulrooney-Cousins et al.