Background & aims: Rat hepatitis E virus (Orthohepevirus species C; HEV-C1) is an emerging cause of viral hepatitis in humans. HEV-C1 is divergent from other HEV variants infecting humans that belong to Orthohepevirus species A (HEV-A). This study assessed HEV-C1 antigenic divergence from HEV-A and investigated the impact of this divergence on infection susceptibility, serological test sensitivity, and vaccine efficacy.
Methods: Immunodominant E2s peptide sequences of HEV-A and HEV-C1 were aligned. Interactions of HEV-C1 E2s and anti-HEV-A monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) were modeled. Recombinant peptides incorporating E2s of HEV-A (HEV-A4 p239) and HEV-C1 (HEV-C1 p241) were expressed. HEV-A and HEV-C1 patient sera were tested using antibody enzymatic immunoassays (EIA), antigen EIAs, and HEV-A4 p239/HEV-C1 p241 immunoblots. Rats immunized with HEV-A1 p239 vaccine (Hecolin), HEV-A4 p239 or HEV-C1 p241 peptides were challenged with a HEV-C1 strain.
Results: E2s sequence identity between HEV-A and HEV-C1 was only 48%. There was low conservation at E2s residues (23/53; 43.4%) involved in mAb binding. Anti-HEV-A mAbs bound HEV-C1 poorly in homology modeling and antigen EIAs. Divergence resulted in low sensitivity of commercial antigen (0%) and antibody EIAs (10-70%) for HEV-C1 diagnosis. Species-specific HEV-A4 p239/HEV-C1 p241 immunoblots accurately differentiated HEV-A and HEV-C1 serological profiles in immunized rats (18/18; 100%) and infected-patient sera (32/36; 88.9%). Immunization with Hecolin and HEV-A4 p239 was partially protective while HEV-C1 p241 was fully protective against HEV-C1 infection in rats.
Conclusions: Antigenic divergence significantly decreases sensitivity of hepatitis E serodiagnostic assays for HEV-C1 infection. Species-specific immunoblots are useful for diagnosing HEV-C1 and for differentiating the serological profiles of HEV-A and HEV-C1. Prior HEV-A exposure is not protective against HEV-C1. HEV-C1 p241 is an immunogenic vaccine candidate against HEV-C1.
Lay summary: Rat hepatitis E virus (HEV-C1) is a new cause of hepatitis in humans. Using a combination of methods, we showed that HEV-C1 is highly divergent from the usual cause of human hepatitis (HEV-A). This divergence reduces the capacity of existing tests to diagnose HEV-C1 and also indicates that prior exposure to HEV-A (via infection or vaccination) is not protective against HEV-C1.
Keywords: HEV-C1; hepatitis E; rat hepatitis E; viral hepatitis; zoonosis.
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