Evidence for Multiple Subpopulations of Herpesvirus-Latently Infected Cells

mBio. 2022 Jan 4;13(1):e0347321. doi: 10.1128/mbio.03473-21. Online ahead of print.


Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV)-associated primary effusion lymphomas (PEL) are traditionally viewed as homogenous regarding viral transcription and lineage of origin, but so far this contention has not been explored at the single-cell level. Single-cell RNA sequencing of latently infected PEL supports the existence of multiple subpopulations even within a single cell line. At most 1% of the cells showed evidence of near-complete lytic transcription. The majority of cells only expressed the canonical viral latent transcripts: those originating from the latency locus, the viral interferon regulatory factor locus, and the viral lncRNA nut-1/Pan/T1.1; however, a significant fraction of cells showed various degrees of more permissive transcription, and some showed no evidence of KSHV transcripts whatsoever. Levels of viral interleukin-6 (IL-6)/K2 mRNA emerged as the most distinguishing feature to subset KSHV-infected PEL. One newly uncovered phenotype is the existence of BCBL-1 cells that readily adhered to fibronectin and that displayed mesenchymal lineage-like characteristics. IMPORTANCE Latency is the defining characteristic of the Herpesviridae and central to the tumorigenesis phenotype of Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV). KSHV-driven primary effusion lymphomas (PEL) rapidly develop resistance to therapy, suggesting tumor instability and plasticity. At any given time, a fraction of PEL cells spontaneously reactivate KSHV, suggesting transcriptional heterogeneity even within a clonal cell line under optimal growth conditions. This study employed single-cell mRNA sequencing to explore the within-population variability of KSHV transcription and how it relates to host cell transcription. Individual clonal PEL cells exhibited differing patterns of viral transcription. Most cells showed the canonical pattern of KSHV latency (LANA, vCyc, vFLIP, Kaposin, and vIRFs), but a significant fraction evidenced extended viral gene transcription, including of the viral IL-6 homolog, open reading frame K2. This study suggests new targets of intervention for PEL. It establishes a conceptual framework to design KSHV cure studies analogous to those for HIV.

Keywords: Castleman’s disease; KSHV; Kaposi’s sarcoma; Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus; herpesvirus; lymphoma; primary effusion lymphoma; scRNAseq; single cell; single-cell RNA-seq.