Therapeutic strategies silencing and reducing the hepatitis B virus (HBV) reservoir, the covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA), have the potential to cure chronic HBV infection. We aimed to investigate the impact of small interferring RNA (siRNA) targeting all HBV transcripts or pegylated interferon-α (peg-IFNα) on the viral regulatory HBx protein and the structural maintenance of chromosome 5/6 complex (SMC5/6), a host factor suppressing cccDNA transcription. In particular, we assessed whether interventions lowering HBV transcripts can achieve and maintain silencing of cccDNA transcription in vivo.
HBV-infected human liver chimeric mice were treated with siRNA or peg-IFNα. Virological and host changes were analysed at the end of treatment and during the rebound phase by qualitative PCR, ELISA, immunoblotting and chromatin immunoprecipitation. RNA in situ hybridisation was combined with immunofluorescence to detect SMC6 and HBV RNAs at single cell level. The entry inhibitor myrcludex-B was used during the rebound phase to avoid new infection events.
Both siRNA and peg-IFNα strongly reduced all HBV markers, including HBx levels, thus enabling the reappearance of SMC5/6 in hepatocytes that achieved HBV-RNA negativisation and SMC5/6 association with the cccDNA. Only IFN reduced cccDNA loads and enhanced IFN-stimulated genes. However, the antiviral effects did not persist off treatment and SMC5/6 was again degraded. Remarkably, the blockade of viral entry that started at the end of treatment hindered renewed degradation of SMC5/6.
These results reveal that therapeutics abrogating all HBV transcripts including HBx promote epigenetic suppression of the HBV minichromosome, whereas strategies protecting the human hepatocytes from reinfection are needed to maintain cccDNA silencing.