Background: HTLV-1 causes adult T-cell leukemia (ATL). Although there have been many studies on the oncogenesis of the viral protein Tax, the precise oncogenic mechanism remains to be elucidated. Recently, a new viral factor, HTLV-1 basic Zip factor (HBZ), encoded from the minus strand mRNA was discovered and the current models of Tax-centered ATL cell pathogenesis are in conflict with this discovery. HBZs consisting of non-spliced and spliced isoforms (HBZ-SI) are thought to be implicated in viral replication and T-cell proliferation but there is little evidence on the HBZ expression profile on a large scale.
Results: To investigate the role of HBZ-SI in HTLV-1 provirus-positive cells, the HBZ-SI and Tax mRNA loads in samples with a mixture of infected and non-infected cells were measured and then adjusted by dividing by the HTLV-I proviral load. We show here that the HBZ-SI mRNA level is 4-fold higher than non-spliced HBZ and is expressed by almost all cells harboring HTLV-1 provirus with variable intensity. The proviral-adjusted HBZ-SI and Tax quantification revealed a characteristic imbalanced expression feature of high HBZ and low Tax expression levels in primary ATL cells or high HBZ and very high Tax levels in HTLV-1-related cell lines (cell lines) compared with a standard expression profile of low HBZ and low Tax in infected cells. Interestingly, according to the mutual Tax and HBZ expression status, HTLV-1-related cell lines were subcategorized into two groups, an ATL cell type with high HBZ and low Tax levels and another type with high Tax and either high or low HBZ, which was closely related to its cell origin.
Conclusion: This is the first comprehensive study to evaluate the mutual expression profile of HBZ and Tax in provirus-positive cells, revealing that there are quantitative and relative characteristic features among infected cells, primary ATL cells, and cell lines.