Cytokines induced during chronic hepatitis B virus infection promote a pathway for NK cell–mediated liver damage
Dunn C., Brunetto M., Reynolds G., Christophides T., Kennedy PT., Lampertico P., Das A., Lopes AR., Borrow P., Williams K., Humphreys E., Afford S., Adams DH., Bertoletti A., Maini MK.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) causes chronic infection in more than 350 million people worldwide. It replicates in hepatocytes but is non-cytopathic; liver damage is thought to be immune mediated. Here, we investigated the role of innate immune responses in mediating liver damage in patients with chronic HBV infection. Longitudinal analysis revealed a temporal correlation between flares of liver inflammation and fluctuations in interleukin (IL)-8, interferon (IFN)-α, and natural killer (NK) cell expression of tumor necrosis factor–related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) directly ex vivo. A cross-sectional study confirmed these findings in patients with HBV-related liver inflammation compared with healthy carriers. Activated, TRAIL-expressing NK cells were further enriched in the liver of patients with chronic HBV infection, while their hepatocytes expressed increased levels of a TRAIL death–inducing receptor. IFN-α concentrations found in patients were capable of activating NK cells to induce TRAIL-mediated hepatocyte apoptosis in vitro. The pathogenic potential of this pathway could be further enhanced by the ability of the IFN-α/IL-8 combination to dysregulate the balance of death-inducing and regulatory TRAIL receptors expressed on hepatocytes. We conclude that NK cells may contribute to liver inflammation by TRAIL-mediated death of hepatocytes and demonstrate that this non-antigen–specific mechanism can be switched on by cytokines produced during active HBV infection.