Inhibition of hepatitis B virus replication via HBV DNA cleavage by Cas9 fromStaphylococcus aureus

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Chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is difficult to cure due to the presence of covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA). Accumulating evidence indicates that the CRISPR/Cas9 system effectively disrupts HBV genome, including cccDNA, in vitro and in vivo. However, efficient delivery of CRISPR/Cas9 system to the liver or hepatocytes using an adeno-associated virus (AAV) vector remains challenging due to the large size of Cas9 from Streptococcus pyogenes (Sp). The recently identified Cas9 protein from Staphylococcus aureus (Sa) is smaller than SpCas9 and thus is able to be packaged into the AAV vector. To examine the efficacy of SaCas9 system on HBV genome destruction, we designed 5 guide RNAs (gRNAs) that targeted different HBV genotypes, 3 of which were shown to be effective. The SaCas9 system significantly reduced HBV antigen expression, as well as pgRNA and cccDNA levels, in Huh7, HepG2.2.15 and HepAD38 cells. The dual expression of gRNAs/SaCas9 in these cell lines resulted in more efficient HBV genome cleavage. In the mouse model, hydrodynamic injection of gRNA/SaCas9 plasmids resulted in significantly lower levels of HBV protein expression. We also delivered the SaCas9 system into mice with persistent HBV replication using an AAV vector. Both the AAV vector and the mRNA of Cas9 could be detected in the C3H mouse liver cells. Decreased hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), HBV DNA and pgRNA levels were observed when a higher titer of AAV was injected, although this decrease was not significantly different from the control. In summary, the SaCas9 system accurately and efficiently targeted the HBV genome and inhibited HBV replication both in vitro and in vivo. The system was delivered by an AAV vector and maybe used as a novel therapeutic strategy against chronic HBV infection.HighlightsThe SaCas9 gRNAs revealed high potency to inhibit HBV replication in various cell lines and HDI-based mice.The HBsAg and HBV DNA levels showed a rapid decrease in the C3H mice treated with a higher titer of AAV/SaCas9.The off-target effects of SaCas9 were very weak indicating by the almost undetectable mutation rate in the host genome.

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