Mechanism of Hepatitis B Virus Persistence in Hepatocytes and Its Carcinogenic Potential

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Liver disease associated with persistent infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) continues to be a major health problem of global impact. Despite the existence of an effective vaccine, at least 240 million people are chronically infected worldwide, and are at risk of developing liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Although chronic HBV infection is considered the main risk factor for liver cancer development, the molecular mechanisms determining persistence of infection and long-term pathogenesis are not fully elucidated but appear to be multifactorial. Current therapeutic regimens based on the use of polymerase inhibitors can efficiently suppress viral replication but are unable to eradicate the infection. This is due both to the persistence of the HBV genome, which forms a stable minichromosome, the covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA), in the nucleus of infected hepatocytes, as well as to the inability of the immune system to efficiently counteract chronic HBV infection. In this regard, the unique replication strategies adopted by HBV and viral protein production also appear to contribute to infection persistence by limiting the effectiveness of innate responses. The availability of improved experimental systems and molecular techniques have started to provide new information about the complex network of interactions that HBV establishes within the hepatocyte and that may contribute to disease progression and tumor development. Thus, this review will mostly focus on events involving the hepatocyte: the only target cell where HBV infection and replication take place.

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