October 23, 2019  |  

AAV-mediated delivery of zinc finger nucleases targeting hepatitis B virus inhibits active replication.

Despite an existing effective vaccine, hepatitis B virus (HBV) remains a major public health concern. There are effective suppressive therapies for HBV, but they remain expensive and inaccessible to many, and not all patients respond well. Furthermore, HBV can persist as genomic covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) that remains in hepatocytes even during otherwise effective therapy and facilitates rebound in patients after treatment has stopped. Therefore, the need for an effective treatment that targets active and persistent HBV infections remains. As a novel approach to treat HBV, we have targeted the HBV genome for disruption to prevent viral reactivation and replication. We generated 3 zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) that target sequences within the HBV polymerase, core and X genes. Upon the formation of ZFN-induced DNA double strand breaks (DSB), imprecise repair by non-homologous end joining leads to mutations that inactivate HBV genes. We delivered HBV-specific ZFNs using self-complementary adeno-associated virus (scAAV) vectors and tested their anti-HBV activity in HepAD38 cells. HBV-ZFNs efficiently disrupted HBV target sites by inducing site-specific mutations. Cytotoxicity was seen with one of the ZFNs. scAAV-mediated delivery of a ZFN targeting HBV polymerase resulted in complete inhibition of HBV DNA replication and production of infectious HBV virions in HepAD38 cells. This effect was sustained for at least 2 weeks following only a single treatment. Furthermore, high specificity was observed for all ZFNs, as negligible off-target cleavage was seen via high-throughput sequencing of 7 closely matched potential off-target sites. These results show that HBV-targeted ZFNs can efficiently inhibit active HBV replication and suppress the cellular template for HBV persistence, making them promising candidates for eradication therapy.

September 22, 2019  |  

RNAi-based treatment of chronically infected patients and chimpanzees reveals that integrated hepatitis B virus DNA is a source of HBsAg.

Chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is a major health concern worldwide, frequently leading to liver cirrhosis, liver failure, and hepatocellular carcinoma. Evidence suggests that high viral antigen load may play a role in chronicity. Production of viral proteins is thought to depend on transcription of viral covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA). In a human clinical trial with an RNA interference (RNAi)-based therapeutic targeting HBV transcripts, ARC-520, HBV S antigen (HBsAg) was strongly reduced in treatment-naïve patients positive for HBV e antigen (HBeAg) but was reduced significantly less in patients who were HBeAg-negative or had received long-term therapy with nucleos(t)ide viral replication inhibitors (NUCs). HBeAg positivity is associated with greater disease risk that may be moderately reduced upon HBeAg loss. The molecular basis for this unexpected differential response was investigated in chimpanzees chronically infected with HBV. Several lines of evidence demonstrated that HBsAg was expressed not only from the episomal cccDNA minichromosome but also from transcripts arising from HBV DNA integrated into the host genome, which was the dominant source in HBeAg-negative chimpanzees. Many of the integrants detected in chimpanzees lacked target sites for the small interfering RNAs in ARC-520, explaining the reduced response in HBeAg-negative chimpanzees and, by extension, in HBeAg-negative patients. Our results uncover a heretofore underrecognized source of HBsAg that may represent a strategy adopted by HBV to maintain chronicity in the presence of host immunosurveillance. These results could alter trial design and endpoint expectations of new therapies for chronic HBV. Copyright © 2017 The Authors, some rights reserved; exclusive licensee American Association for the Advancement of Science. No claim to original U.S. Government Works.

July 19, 2019  |  

Single-molecule sequencing reveals complex genomic variation of hepatitis B virus during 15 years of chronic infection following liver transplantation.

Chronic hepatitis B (CHB) is prevalent worldwide. The infectious agent, hepatitis B virus (HBV) replicates via an RNA intermediate and is error-prone, leading to rapid generation of closely related but not identical viral variants, including those that can escape host immune responses and antiviral treatments. The complexity of CHB can be further enhanced by the presence of HBV variants with large deletions in the genome, generated via splicing (spHBV). Although spHBV variants are incapable of autonomous replication, their replication is rescued by wild-type HBV. SpHBV variants have been shown to enhance wild-type virus replication, and their prevalence increases with liver disease progression. Single-molecule deep sequencing was performed on whole HBV genomes extracted from longitudinal samples of a post-liver transplant CHB subject, collected over a 15-year period that included the liver explant. By employing novel bioinformatics methods, this analysis showed a complex dynamics of the viral population across a period of changing treatment regimens. The spHBV detected in the liver explant remained present post-transplantation, along with emergence of a highly diverse novel spHBV population as well as variants with multiple deletions in the preS genes. The identification of novel mutations outside the HBV reverse transcriptase gene that co-occur with known drug resistant mutations, highlight the relevance of using full genome deep sequencing and support the hypothesis that drug resistance involves interactions across the full-length HBV genome.Single-molecule sequencing allowed characterising, in unprecedented detail, the evolution of HBV populations and offered unique insights into the dynamics of defective and spHBV variants following liver transplantation and complex treatment regimes. This analysis also showed rapid adaptation of HBV populations to treatment regimens with evolving drug resistance phenotypes and evidence of purifying selection across the whole genome. Finally, the new open source bioinformatics tools are freely available, with the capacity to easily identify potential spliced variants from deep sequencing data. Copyright © 2016, American Society for Microbiology. All Rights Reserved.

July 19, 2019  |  

A comparative study on the characterization of hepatitis B virus quasispecies by clone-based sequencing and third-generation sequencing.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) has a high mutation rate due to the extremely high replication rate and the proofreading deficiency during reverse transcription. The generated variants with genetic heterogeneity are described as viral quasispecies (QS). Clone-based sequencing (CBS) is thought to be the ‘gold standard’ for assessing QS complexity and diversity of HBV, but an important issue about CBS is cost-effectiveness and laborious. In this study, we investigated the utility of the third-generation sequencing (TGS) DNA sequencing to characterize genetic heterogeneity of HBV QS and assessed the possible contribution of TGS technology in HBV QS studies. Parallel experiments including 3 control samples, which consisted of HBV full gene genotype B and genotype C plasmids, and 10 patients samples were performed by using CBS and TGS to analyze HBV whole-genome QS. Characterization of QS heterogeneity was conducted by using comprehensive statistical analysis. The results showed that TGS had a high consistency with CBS when measuring the complexity and diversity of QS. In addition, to detect rare variants, there were strong advantages conferred by TGS. In summary, TGS was considered to be practicable in HBV QS studies and it might have a relevant role in the clinical management of HBV infection in the future.

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