Maturation of hepatic cells can be gradually acquired through multiple stages of hepatic lineage specification, while it is unclear whether hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is maturationally lineage-dependent. We investigated the susceptibility to HCV at multiple stages of human embryonic stem cells, definitive endodermal cells, hepatic stem cells, hepatoblasts (hHBs), and mature hepatocytes. Susceptibility to infection occurred initially at the stage of human hepatic stem cells; however, hHBs proved to have the highest permissiveness and infectivity compared with all other stages. The hHBs' susceptibility to HCV correlated with the translocation of occludin, an HCV receptor, from cytoplasm to plasma membrane of HBs. Vascular endothelial cell growth factor enhanced the HCV susceptibility of hHBs through rearrangement of occludin by dephosphorylation; this minimized hHB polarization and prevented hHBs from further maturation. The transcription profiles of different hepatic lineage stages indicated that expression of innate immune response genes was correlated with hepatic maturation; interferon β played an important role in protecting hHBs from HCV infection. HCV-infected hHBs were able to engraft and integrate into the livers of Fah-/- Rag2-/- mice and maintained an hHB phenotype for over 12 weeks during the time when HCV antigen was evident. After suppression of interferon β in hHBs, HCV infection was significantly enhanced in the engrafted humanized liver tissue of host mice.
Conclusion: Human embryonic stem cell-derived hHBs are the optimal hosts for HCV infectivity; the realization that HCV entry and replication occur primarily at a particular hepatic lineage stage enables us to understand the HCV infection factors, life cycle, and infection dynamics that are facets of the pathogenesis as well as suggesting targets for anti-HCV treatment. (Hepatology 2017;66:717-735).
© 2017 by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.