Efficient formation and maintenance of humoral and CD4 T-cell immunity targeting the viral capsid in acute-resolving hepatitis E infection

J Hepatol. 2024 Apr;80(4):564-575. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2023.12.016. Epub 2023 Dec 26.


Background & aims: CD4 T cells shape the neutralizing antibody (nAb) response and facilitate viral clearance in various infections. Knowledge of their phenotype, specificity and dynamics in hepatitis E virus (HEV) infection is limited. HEV is enterically transmitted as a naked virus (nHEV) but acquires a host-derived quasi-envelope (eHEV) when budding from cells. While nHEV is composed of the open reading frame (ORF)-2-derived capsid, eHEV particles also contain ORF3-derived proteins. We aimed to longitudinally characterize the HEV-specific CD4 T cells targeting ORF1, 2 and 3 and antibodies against nHEV or eHEV in immunocompetent individuals with acute and resolved HEV infection.

Methods: HEV-specific CD4 T cells were analyzed by intracellular cytokine staining after stimulation with in silico-predicted ORF1- and ORF2-derived epitopes and overlapping peptides spanning the ORF3 region. Ex vivo multiparametric characterization of capsid-specific CD4 T cells was performed using customized MHC class II tetramers. Total and neutralizing antibodies targeting nHEV or eHEV particles were determined.

Results: HEV-specific CD4 T-cell frequencies and antibody titers are highest in individuals with acute infection and decline in a time-dependent process with an antigen hierarchy. HEV-specific CD4 T cells strongly target the ORF2-derived capsid and ORF3-specific CD4 T cells are hardly detectable. NAbs targeting nHEV are found in high titers while eHEV particles are less efficiently neutralized. Capsid-specific CD4 T cells undergo memory formation and stepwise contraction, accompanied by dynamic phenotypical and transcriptional changes over time.

Conclusion: The viral capsid is the main target of HEV-specific CD4 T cells and antibodies in acute-resolving infection, correlating with efficient neutralization of nHEV. Capsid-specific immunity rapidly emerges followed by a stepwise contraction several years after infection.

Impact and implications: The interplay of CD4 T cells and neutralizing antibody responses is critical in the host defense against viral infections, yet little is known about their characteristics in hepatitis E virus (HEV) infection. We conducted a longitudinal study of immunocompetent individuals with acute and resolved HEV infection to understand the characteristics of HEV-specific CD4 T cells and neutralizing antibodies targeting different viral proteins and particles. We found that HEV-specific CD4 T cells mainly target capsid-derived epitopes. This correlates with efficient neutralization of naked virions while quasi-enveloped particles are less susceptible to neutralization. As individuals with pre-existing liver disease and immunocompromised individuals are at risk for fulminant or chronic courses of HEV infection, these individuals might benefit from the development of vaccination strategies which require a detailed knowledge of the composition and longevity of HEV-specific CD4 T-cell and antibody immunity.

Keywords: adaptive immunity; epitope identification; flow cytometry; immunology; intracellular cytokine staining; viral clearance; viral hepatitis.

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Neutralizing
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes
  • Capsid / metabolism
  • Capsid Proteins / metabolism
  • Epitopes
  • Hepatitis E virus* / genetics
  • Hepatitis E*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies


  • Capsid Proteins
  • Epitopes
  • Antibodies, Neutralizing