Cross-protection and Potential Animal Reservoir of the Hepatitis E Virus
HEV is an important public health concern due largely to water-borne outbreak. Recent research confirms individual cases of zoonotic transmission due to human exposure to contaminated animal meats. At least four recognized and two putative genotypes of mammalian HEV have been reported: genotypes 1 and 2 are restricted to humans whereas genotypes 3 and 4 are zoonotic. In addition to humans, strains of HEV have been genetically identified from pigs, chickens, rats, mongoose, deer, rabbits and fish. The current experimental vaccines are all based on a single strain of HEV, even though multiple genotypes of HEV are co-circulating in some countries and thus an individual may be exposed to more than one genotype. Therefore, it is important to know if prior infection with a genotype 3 swine HEV will confer protective immunity against subsequent exposure to genotypes 3 and 4 human and swine HEV. In the first study, specific-pathogen-free pigs were divided into 4 groups of 6 each. Pigs in the three treatment groups were each inoculated with a genotype 3 swine HEV, and 12 weeks later, challenged with the same genotype 3 swine HEV, a genotype 3 human HEV, and a genotype 4 human HEV, respectively. Sera from all pigs were tested for HEV RNA and IgG anti-HEV, and fecal samples were also tested for HEV RNA each week. The pigs inoculated with swine HEV became infected as evidenced by fecal virus shedding and viremia, and the majority of pigs also developed IgG anti-HEV prior to challenge at 12 weeks post-inoculation. After challenge, viremia and fecal virus shedding of challenge viruses were not detected, suggesting that prior infection with a genotype 3 swine HEV prevented pigs from developing viremia and fecal virus shedding after challenge with homologous and heterologous genotypes 3 and 4 HEV, respectively.
Immunogenic epitopes are located within the open reading frame 2 (ORF 2) capsid protein and recombinant ORF 2 antigens are capable of preventing HEV infection in non-human primates and chickens. In the second study we expressed and purified N-truncated ORF 2 antigens based on swine, rat, and avian HEV strains. Thirty pigs were randomly divided into groups of 6 pigs each and initially vaccinated with 200µg swine ORF 2 antigen, rat ORF 2 antigen, avian ORF 2 antigen, or PBS buffer (positive and negative control groups) and booster with the same vaccine 2 weeks later. At 4 wks, after confirming seroconversion to IgG anti-HEV antibody with ELISA, all groups except the negative control were challenged with swine genotype 3 HEV (administered intravenously). The protective and cross-protective abilities of these antigens were determined following swine genotype 3 challenge by evaluating both serum and fecal samples for HEV RNA using nested RT-PCR and IgG anti-HEV using ELISA. The results from these two studies have important implications for future development of an effective HEV vaccine.
As a part of our ongoing efforts to search for potential animal reservoirs for HEV, we tested goats from Virginia for evidence of HEV infection and showed that 16% (13/80) of goat sera from Virginia herds were positive for IgG anti-HEV. Importantly, we demonstrated that selected goat sera were capable of neutralizing HEV in cell culture. Subsequently, in an attempt to genetically identify the HEV-related agent from goats, we conducted a prospective study in a closed goat herd with known anti-HEV seropositivity and monitored a total of 11 kids from the time of birth until 14 weeks of age for evidence of HEV infection. Seroconversion to IgG anti-HEV was detected in 7 out of the 11 kids, although repeated attempts to detect HEV RNA by a broad-spectrum nested RT-PCR from the fecal and serum samples of the goats that had seroconverted were unsuccessful. In addition, we also attempted to experimentally infect laboratory goats with three well-characterized mammalian strains of HEV but with no success. The results indicate that a HEV-related agent is circulating and maintained in the goat population in Virginia and that the goat HEV is likely genetically very divergent from the known HEV strains.