Interferon drives HCV scarring of the epigenome and creates targetable vulnerabilities following viral clearance

Ryan A. Hlady, Xia Zhao, Louis Y. El Khoury, Aesis Luna, Kien Pham, Qunfeng Wu, Jeong Heon Lee, Nikolaos T. Pyrsopoulos, Chen Liu, Keith D. Robertson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background and Aims: Chronic HCV infection is a leading etiologic driver of cirrhosis and ultimately HCC. Of the approximately 71 million individuals chronically infected with HCV, 10%-20% are expected to develop severe liver complications in their lifetime. Epigenetic mechanisms including DNA methylation and histone modifications become profoundly disrupted in disease processes including liver disease. Approach and Results: To understand how HCV infection influences the epigenome and whether these events remain as “scars” following cure of chronic HCV infection, we mapped genome-wide DNA methylation, four key regulatory histone modifications (H3K4me3, H3K4me1, H3K27ac, and H3K27me3), and open chromatin in parental and HCV-infected immortalized hepatocytes and the Huh7.5 HCC cell line, along with DNA methylation and gene-expression analyses following elimination of HCV in these models through treatment with interferon-α (IFN-α) or a direct-acting antiviral (DAA). Our data demonstrate that HCV infection profoundly affects the epigenome (particularly enhancers); HCV shares epigenetic targets with interferon-α targets; and an overwhelming majority of epigenetic changes induced by HCV remain as “scars” on the epigenome following viral cure. Similar findings are observed in primary human patient samples cured of chronic HCV infection. Supplementation of IFN-α/DAA antiviral regimens with DNA methyltransferase inhibitor 5-aza-2’-deoxycytidine synergizes in reverting aberrant DNA methylation induced by HCV. Finally, both HCV-infected and cured cells displayed a blunted immune response, demonstrating a functional effect of epigenetic scarring. Conclusions: Integration of epigenetic and transcriptional data elucidate key gene deregulation events driven by HCV infection and how this may underpin the long-term elevated risk for HCC in patients cured of HCV due to epigenome scarring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)983-996
Number of pages14
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hepatology


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