HCV replication in gastrointestinal mucosa: Potential extra-hepatic viral reservoir and possible role in HCV infection recurrence after liver transplantation

Giovanna Russelli, Paola Pizzillo, Gioacchin Iannolo, Floriana Barbera, Fabio Tuzzolino, Rosa Liotta, Mario Traina, Giovanni Vizzini, Bruno Gridelli, Ester Badami, Pier Giulio Conaldi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) predominantly infects hepatocytes, although it is known that receptors for viral entry are distributed on a wide array of target cells. Chronic HCV infection is indeed characterized by multiple non-liver manifestations, suggesting a more complex HCV tropism extended to extrahepatic tissues and remains to be fully elucidated. In this study, we investigated the gastrointestinal mucosa (GIM) as a potential extrahepatic viral replication site and its contribution to HCV recurrence. Methods: We analyzed GIM biopsies from a cohort of 76 patients, 11 of which were HCV-negative and 65 HCV-positive. Of these, 54 biopsies were from liver-transplanted patients. In 29 cases, we were able to investigate gastrointestinal biopsies from the same patient before and after transplant. To evaluate the presence of HCV, we looked for viral antigens and genome RNA, whilst to assess viral replicative activity, we searched for the replicative intermediate minus-strand RNA. We studied the genetic diversity and the phylogenetic relationship of HCV quasispecies from plasma, liver and gastrointestinal mucosa of HCV-liver-transplanted patients in order to assess HCV compartmentalization and possible contribution of gastrointestinal variants to liver re-infection after transplantation. Results: Here we show that HCV infects and replicates in the cells of the GIM and that the favorite hosts were mostly enteroendocrine cells. Interestingly, we observed compartmentalization of the HCV quasispecies present in the gastrointestinal mucosa compared to other tissues of the same patient. Moreover, the phylogenetic analysis revealed a high similarity between HCV variants detected in gastrointestinal mucosa and those present in the re-infected graft. Conclusions: Our results demonstrated that the gastrointestinal mucosa might be considered as an extrahepatic reservoir of HCV and that could contribute to viral recurrence. Moreover, the finding that HCV infects and replicates in neuroendocrine cells opens new perspectives on the role of these cells in the natural history of HCV infection.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0181683
JournalPLoS One
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 27 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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