Background: Lassa hemorrhagic fever (LHF) is a neglected tropical disease with significant impact on the health care system, society, and economy of Western and Central African nations where it is endemic. With a high rate of infection that may lead to morbidity and mortality, understanding how the virus interacts with the host's immune system is of great importance for generating vaccines and therapeutics. Previous work by our group identified a soluble isoform of the Lassa virus (LASV) GP1 (sGP1) in vitro resulting from the expression of the glycoprotein complex (GPC) gene [1, 2]. Though no work has directly been done to demonstrate the function of this soluble isoform in arenaviral infections, evidence points to immunomodulatory effects against the host's immune system mediated by a secreted glycoprotein component in filoviruses, another class of hemorrhagic fever-causing viruses. A significant fraction of shed glycoprotein isoforms during viral infection and biogenesis may attenuate the host's inflammatory response, thereby enhancing viral replication and tissue damage. Such shed glycoprotein mediated effects were previously reported for Ebola virus (EBOV), a filovirus that also causes hemorrhagic fever with nearly 90 percent fatality rates [3 - 5]. The identification of an analogous phenomenon in vivo could establish a new correlate of LHF infection leading to the development of sensitive diagnostics targeting the earliest molecular events of the disease. Additionally, the reversal of potentially untoward immunomodulatory functions mediated by sGP1 could potentiate the development of novel therapeutic intervention. To this end, we investigated the presence of sGP1 in the serum of suspected LASV patients admitted to the Kenema Government Hospital (KGH) Lassa Fever Ward (LFW), in Kenema, Sierra Leone that tested positive for viral antigen or displayed classical signs of Lassa fever.
Results: It is reasonable to expect that a narrow window exists for detection of sGP1 as the sole protein shed during early arenaviral biogenesis. This phenomenon was clearly distinguishable from virion-associated GP1 only prior to the emergence of de novo viral particles. Despite this restricted time frame, in 2/46 suspected cases in two studies performed in late 2009 and early 2010, soluble glycoprotein component shedding was identified. Differential detection of viral antigens GP1, GP2, and NP by western blot yielded five different scenarios: whole LASV virions (GP1, GP2, NP; i.e. active viremia), different combinations of these three proteins, sGP1 only, NP only, and absence of all three proteins. Four additional samples showed inconclusive evidence for sGP1 shedding due to lack of detection of GP2 and NP in western blot; however, a sensitive LASV NP antigen capture ELISA generated marginally positive signals.
Conclusions: During a narrow window following active infection with LASV, soluble GP1 can be detected in patient sera. This phenomenon parallels other VHF infection profiles, with the actual role of a soluble viral glycoprotein component in vivo remaining largely speculative. The expenditure of energy and cellular resources toward secretion of a critical protein during viral biogenesis without apparent specific function requires further investigation. Future studies will be aimed at systematically identifying the role of LASV sGP1 in the infection process and outcome in vitro and in vivo.