Aim: To study Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection and its association with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) at the miRNA level.
Methods: Three cellular models were used to investigate miRNA expression changes during HBV infection: human HepG2 hepatoblastoma cell line as a model without HBV infection; HepG2 cell line transfected with a 1.3-fold full-length HBV genome as an acute infection model; and HepG2.2.15 cell line, which is derived from HepG2 and stably transfected with a complete HBV genome, as a chronic infection model. The miRNA levels were examined using microarray technology. To explore the relationship between HBV infection and HCC genesis at the miRNA level, we downloaded from national center for biotechnology information Gene Expression Omnibus an miRNA expression dataset derived from HCC patients, most of whom are HBV carriers. We compared the miRNA expression alterations during HBV infection with those in HCC patients, by analyzing miRNA expression change profiles statistically.
Results: Seventy-seven and 48 miRNAs were differentially expressed during acute and chronic HBV infection, respectively. Among these miRNAs, 25 were in common, the intersection of which was significant under the hypergeometric test (P = 1.3 × 10⁻¹¹). Fourteen miRNAs were observed to change coherently in the acute and chronic infections, with one upregulated and 13 downregulated. Eleven showed inverse changes during the two phases of infection; downregulated in the acute infection and upregulated in the chronic infection. The results imply that common and specific mechanisms exist at the miRNA level during acute and chronic HBV infection. Besides, comparative analysis of the miRNA expression changes during HBV infection with those in HCC indicates that, although miRNA expression changes during HBV infection are distinct from those in HCC patients (P < 2.2 × 10⁻¹⁶), they exhibited significant correlations (P = 0.0229 for acute infection; P = 0.0084 for chronic infection). Perturbation of miRNA expression during chronic HBV infection was closer to that in HCC patients than that during acute HBV infection. This observation implies the contribution of miRNAs to HCC genesis from HBV infection. According to their patterns of differential expression in acute and chronic HBV infection, as well as in HCC, miRNAs of potential research interest could be identified, such as miR-18a/miR-18b, miR-106a, miR-221 and miR-101. For instance, the gradient expression alteration of miR-221 in the above three phases, which is downregulated in acute HBV infection, normally expressed in chronic HBV infection, and upregulated in HCC, indicates that it may be a key effector for progression of the disease.
Conclusion: Our analysis provides insights into HBV infection and related HCC in relation to miRNAs, and reveals some candidate miRNAs for future studies.
Keywords: Hepatitis B virus; Hepatocellular carcinoma; MiRNA.