The hepatitis E virus (HEV) is the most common cause of acute hepatitis worldwide. Although HEV is a small, naked RNA virus, HEV particles become associated with lipids in the blood of infected patients and in the supernatant of culture systems. The egress of these particles from cells implies the exocytosis pathway but the question of the role of the resulting HEV RNA containing exosomes and the nature of the lipids they contain has not been fully addressed.
Toulouse University researchers determined the lipid proportions of exosomes from uninfected and HEV-infected cells and their role in HEV spreading. They cultured a suitable HEV strain on HepG2/C3A cells and analyzed the population of exosomes containing HEV RNA using lipidomics methods and electron microscopy. They also quantified HEV infectivity using an infectivity endpoint method based on HEV RNA quantification to calculate the tissues culture infectious dose 50.
Exosomes produced by HEV-infected HepG2/C3A cells contained encapsidated HEV RNA. These HEV RNA-containing exosomes were infectious but ten times less than stools. HEV from stools, but not exosome-associated HEV from culture supernatant, was neutralized by anti-HEV antibodies in a dose-dependent manner. HEV infection did not influence the morphology or lipid proportions of the bulk of exosomes. These exosomes contained significantly more cholesterol, phosphatidylserine, sphingomyelin and ceramides than the parent cells, but less phosphoinositides and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Exosomes play a major role in HEV egress but HEV infection does not modify the characteristics of the bulk of exosomes produced by infected cells. PS and cholesterol enriched in these vesicles could then be critical for HEV entry. HEV particles in exosomes are protected from the immune response which could lead to the wide circulation of HEV in its host.