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Hepatitis delta and HIV infection

Soriano, Vincent; Sherman, Kenneth E.; Barreiro, Pablo

doi: 10.1097/QAD.0000000000001424
Editorial Review

Viral liver diseases are frequent comorbidities and major contributors to death in HIV-positive individuals on antiretroviral therapy. Although cure of hepatitis C and control of hepatitis B with antivirals avert liver disease progression in most HIV-coinfected patients, the lack of satisfactory treatment for hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection remains a major threat for developing cirrhosis and liver cancer in this population. In the European Union (EU) and North America, sexual contact has replaced injection drug use that has been the major transmission route for HDV in HIV-positive persons. PegIFNα is the only approved HDV therapy; however, sustained HDV-RNA clearance is achieved by less than 25%. The recent discovery of sodium taurocholate cotransporting polypeptide as the key hepatitis B virus (HBV) and HDV cell entry receptor has opened the door to a new therapeutic era. Indeed, promising results have been released using Myrcludex-B, a sodium taurocholate cotransporting polypeptide inhibitor. More encouraging are data with new classes of HDV blockers, such as prenylation inhibitors (i.e. lonafarnib) and nucleic acid polymers. At this time, sustained suppression of HDV replication is the primary goal of HDV therapy, as it is associated with normalization of liver enzymes and histological improvement. Of note, the use of specific antivirals for HDV must be given along with anti-HBV agents to prevent HBV rebounds following removal of viral interference. The lack of persistent forms of HDV-RNA could provide a unique opportunity for curing hepatitis delta, even without eliminating HBV circular covalently closed DNA. Ultimately, suppression of HDV replication along with hepatitis B surface antigen clearance once drugs are off would be the best reflect of hepatitis delta cure.

aInfectious Diseases & Tropical Medicine Unit, Hospital La Paz-Carlos III & Autonomous University, Madrid, Spain

bDivision of Digestive Diseases, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

Correspondence to Vincent Soriano, MD, PhD, Department of Infectious Diseases, Hospital Carlos III, Madrid, Spain. E-mail: vsoriano@dragonet.es

Received 22 December, 2016

Accepted 19 January, 2017

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Introduction

The presence of the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) was first postulated 40 years ago by Rizzetto et al. [1] in a subset of Italian patients with hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection experiencing an unusually severe hepatitis. A novel antigen, then called ‘delta’, was found in the liver biopsy in a subset of these individuals. Interestingly, the delta antigen circulated as particles containing hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and a small circular RNA. Antibodies to delta antigen were found in the sera of these patients [2]. Interestingly, HDV was transmissible only in the presence of its helper HBV, either as simultaneous coinfection or sequential superinfection [3].

Chronic hepatitis B and D are major causes of liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) worldwide [4,5]. Despite the fact that an effective preventive HBV vaccine has been available for over 30 years [6], 240 million people are currently chronically infected with HBV [7]. Overall, 5–10% of them (15 million) are superinfected with HDV [8]. Despite causing the most severe form of chronic viral hepatitis [9], hepatitis delta is paradoxically a neglected disease. Even in Western countries, lack of awareness accounts for substantial misdiagnosis, with hepatitis delta often not ruled out in HBsAg carriers. Table 1 summarizes the major features of hepatitis delta.

Table 1

Table 1

HDV is mainly transmitted by parenteral and sexual contact. Vertical transmission can also occur from infected mothers [10]. Given the shared transmission routes with HIV and HCV, coinfection with several of these viruses is relatively common, although with large geographical variability. Figure 1 records the most recent estimates and overlaps of worldwide epidemics of chronic viral hepatitis B, C and delta [7,11,12], along with HIV infection.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

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Hepatitis delta virus virology

HDV is the smallest among mammalian viruses, with 35 nm diameter and one circular, negative single-stranded RNA of nearly 1700 nucleotides [13]. In nature, HDV only infects humans, and there is no animal reservoir. HDV biologically resembles plants’ viroids, the lowest and simplest entities in the biological scale [14], as shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

HDV does not code for any replication enzymes and relies entirely on host cell RNA polymerases I and II for completing its life cycle. Furthermore, HDV is an incomplete virus; it requires the HBsAg in its envelope for propagation (Fig. 3) and therefore only infects patients with HBV [15].

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

The HDV genome includes a region with ribozyme activity, small self-cleaving RNA sequences that are required for the synthesis of the only viral protein, the delta antigen. Interestingly, this 195 amino acid protein has a large isoform with a prenylation site used by the host cellular farnesyl-transferase to modify the protein, a step required to allow virion particle assembly [16].

Both HBV and HDV use heparin sulfate glypican 5 (HSG5) to adsorb viral particles on hepatocytes [17] and the sodium taurocholate cotransporting polypeptide (NTCP) as the main receptor for entering liver cells [18]. Following endocytosis, the replication of the two viral genomes occurs independently within the nucleus of hepatocytes (Fig. 4) [19]. Briefly, the HBV-DNA replicates using a host RNA polymerase and a viral reverse transcriptase, producing stable circular covalently closed DNA (cccDNA) [6]. In contrast, the HDV-RNA replicates through a double rolling circle model that exclusively involves host RNA polymerases [13,14]. In contrast with HBV, there is no HDV genomic reservoir, implying that HDV-RNA molecules are subject to continuous turnover within infected hepatocytes.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

As with other RNA viruses, HDV circulates as a dynamic viral quasispecies population within each infected individual. The large genetic variability is the result of three factors: high daily virion production rate, frequent misincorporation of nucleotides during replication with lack of correction mechanisms and recombination events [13–15]. To date, phylogenetic analyses have identified up to eight HDV genotypes, with distinct geographical distributions (Fig. 5) and perhaps diverse pathogenicity [20]. For instance, the Amazonian HDV genotype 3 might lead to cirrhosis more rapidly than other HDV variants [21].

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

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Hepatitis delta virus epidemiology

As shown in Fig. 5, there are major endemic regions for hepatitis delta worldwide. Pakistan and Mongolia appear to be the countries with the highest HDV prevalence [2,10,22,23]. Typically, hotspots of HDV infection are seen in some but not all groups within endemic areas, reflecting that founder effects are important for HDV spreading. This has been clearly demonstrated among Amazonian Indians, in whom HDV is quite prevalent in some tribes but very uncommon among neighborhoods [24].

Hepatitis delta is less frequent in the EU and North America, with an overall rate of HDV infection ranging from 5 to 15% of HBsAg carriers [25]. Within those countries, three major populations are mainly affected by hepatitis delta: older Mediterranean basin residents, often with advanced liver disease, most of whom infected with HDV in the pre-HBV vaccine era [26]; young IDUs, often coinfected with HIV and/or HCV, mostly in Eastern Europe and Russia [27], and more recently in the United States of America [28]; and individuals migrating from highly endemic regions [29], as recently seen with the massive migratory crisis of refugees across European borders. Until recently, HDV among foreigners living in Europe was mainly found amongst Turkish in Germany, Pakistanis in England, West Africans in France and Latin Americans in Spain [30–32]. Likewise, high HDV rates have been reported among Asians living in California [33].

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Natural history and clinical manifestations

Progression of liver fibrosis in patients with hepatitis delta occurs faster than in persons with hepatitis B or C [34]. Indeed, mortality due to decompensated cirrhosis and liver cancer is greater and at younger age in hepatitis D compared with hepatitis B or C [35]. In contrast, extrahepatic complications associated with HDV infection are rare if any [36], whereas they are common in patients with hepatitis B or C [37].

HCC is the second most common cause of cancer death worldwide [4,5]. HCC is particularly prevalent in Asia and Africa, with a strong correlation with the rate of chronic hepatitis B or C [38]. In a recent study from Cameroon, in which HCC is the most frequent cancer, HBV and HCV were the major determinants of this neoplasm, but the risk of liver cancer increased 25-fold in patients with HDV coinfection compared with healthy controls, and nearly twice with respect to patients with HBsAg alone [39].

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Influence of HIV on hepatitis delta

The burden of hepatitis delta in the HIV population has not been well examined. In the large EuroSIDA cohort, the overall rate of antidelta antibodies was 14.5% among HBsAg carriers [40]. There is a greater rate in the South and Eastern countries compared with Central and North Europe.

In other areas, such as in Taiwan, the rate of hepatitis delta is also greater in the HIV population than in single HBsAg carriers [41]. Interestingly, new incident cases of HDV in Taiwan are no longer among IDUs but among HIV-positive homosexual men [42], often presenting with liver flare-ups and syphilis [43].

The large epidemic of injection drug use in Western Europe and North America in urban areas in the 1980s led to huge increases in the acquisition of HIV, HBV (plus or minus HDV) and HCV [44]. HDV exposure often led to symptomatic (icteric) disease and occurred either as coinfection with HBV or as superinfection in prior HBsAg carriers. More recently, similar outbreaks of hepatitis delta are being reported in ongoing epidemics of injection drug use in Eastern Europe and Russia [27] and in the unexpected new wave of young injection opioid users in rural areas of North America [28]. In Western Europe, hepatitis delta in HIV-positive persons is currently newly diagnosed mainly among immigrants from HDV-endemic regions [30,31].

Liver disease due to HDV infection progresses faster in HIV-infected individuals independent of the use of successful antiretroviral therapy [45]. Indeed, hepatitis delta is a major determinant of decompensated cirrhosis, HCC and survival in this population [46,47]. Figure 6 reports data from a cohort of 1187 HIV-positive individuals followed for nearly one decade in Spain [46]. By far, hepatitis delta was the major cause of liver-related complications and death. Interestingly, the virologic control of HBV and HCV cure with antiviral treatment ameliorated their respective clinical impact.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

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Hepatitis delta diagnosis

Given the need for HBsAg to propagate HDV, the diagnosis of hepatitis delta has been variably recommended in individuals with detectable serum HBsAg. Testing guidelines from consensus groups vary. European Association for Liver Diseases recommends testing of all HBsAg-positive patients, but the AASLD guidelines only recommend HDV testing in perceived higher risk groups. Testing of anti-HDV antibodies in them has been generally sufficient to exclude hepatitis delta. More recently, serum HDV-RNA testing has become a more compelling tool for recognizing active HDV replication. Most patients with reactive anti-HDV antibodies harbor detectable serum HDV-RNA [22,39], although viremia may fluctuate and/or be transient over time [48].

A small proportion of patients with positive anti-HDV antibodies are repeatedly negative for serum HDV-RNA and do not show liver enzyme elevations or hepatic fibrosis. They should be considered as cured from hepatitis delta. Most of them represent former episodes of simultaneous coinfection of HBV and HDV instead of sequential HDV superinfection events in prior HBsAg carriers [30].

The lack of standardized methods for reliably measuring HDV-RNA has hampered monitoring properly hepatitis delta patients, but new tools are being developed [49,50]. In contrast with older in-house methods, the newest tests are HDV pangenotypic and reproducible [49]. Hopefully, their eventual marketing will improve the management of patients with hepatitis delta, making it possible to develop rules that would resemble those already in place for HBV, HCV or HIV, for which treatment indication and response are assessed based in part on nucleic acid detection and viral load.

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Treatment of hepatitis delta

Current antivirals effectively control but only rarely cure chronic HBV and/or HDV infections [6]. Although the molecular biology of the two viruses has been characterized in great detail, the absence of good cell culture models for HBV and/or HDV infection has limited drug investigation and development. Hepatoma cell lines do not allow viral infection, and the culture of primary hepatocytes, the natural host cell for these viruses, implies a series of constraints restricting the possibilities of analyzing adequately virus–host interactions [51]. Recently, the discovery of both NTCP and HSG5 as key HBV and HDV cell entry receptors has opened the door to a new research era [52], as hepatoma cells overexpressing these receptors acquire susceptibility to HBV and HDV infections [51–53].

Table 2 summarizes the major therapeutic approaches and molecules used and/or currently being tested for hepatitis delta. Although pegylated IFNα is the only approved therapy, anti-HBV agents and specific anti-HDV molecules are being developed with promising results. Resembling therapeutic approaches for viruses causing other chronic infections (i.e. HIV to HCV), it is predicted that combination therapy will be the best way to go in hepatitis delta patients.

Table 2

Table 2

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Pegylated IFNα

Since HDV discovery 40 years ago [1], IFNα and subsequently pegylated IFNα have been used to treat hepatitis delta patients. Most likely, there is a beneficial effect derived from blocking replication of both HBV and HDV. The administration of pegylated IFNα for 6–24 months clears serum HDV-RNA and keeps it suppressed up to 6 months thereafter in roughly 25% of patients [54–56], although late HDV relapses are often seen as time passes by, especially in patients who did not seroconvert from HBsAg to anti-HBs [57–59]. Interestingly, IFNα exposure is associated with improved clinical outcomes regardless of the achievement of sustained viral clearance [60].

A few years ago, recombinant pegIFNλ was developed as a safer alternative to interferon alpha, mainly for treating chronic hepatitis C. Drug development was prematurely halted following the introduction of more convenient and active new oral-specific antiviral drugs for HCV. Unfortunately, results with pegIFNλ in hepatitis B were not good enough [61], and the drug was not tested in hepatitis D patients in whom it might have provided a safer alternative option while waiting for new coming specific antivirals for HDV infection.

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Hepatitis B virus nucleos(t)ide analogs

Declines and loss of HBsAg in hepatitis delta patients treated with pegylated IFNα have been associated with sustained serum HDV-RNA suppression. Thus, use of effective anti-HBV drugs might consolidate HDV responses. With this rationale, distinct nucleos(t)ide analogs have been used along with pegylated IFNα to confirm this hypothesis. The first to be tested was lamivudine without any evidence of benefit [62]. In the HIDIT-1 trial, adding adefovir to pegylated IFNα similarly gave no improved responses compared with pegylated IFNα monotherapy [63]. Although 28% of patients treated for 48 weeks with combination therapy maintained negative HDV-RNA up to 24 weeks posttreatment, longer follow-up showed that half of these patients experienced late relapses of HDV replication.

In the HIDIT-2 study, prolonged administration of pegylated IFNα up to 24 months with or without tenofovir did not increase virological responses nor prevent late relapses [64]. Finally, adding entecavir to pegylated IFNα in young adults with hepatitis delta did not increase virological responses at 24 weeks [65].

A close examination of patients with HIV infection who received tenofovir as part of their antiretroviral therapy allowed Spanish researchers to identify a subset of patients with HIV and hepatitis delta who experienced a significant drop in serum HDV-RNA [66]. Moreover, a longer follow-up of these patients showed improvements in liver fibrosis in this population [67]. However, not all patients benefit from tenofovir, and response may be only transient [68]. In contrast, serum HBsAg clearance along with complete HDV-RNA suppression has been reported in others while on tenofovir [69,70].

Given that tenofovir has been marketed so far as tenofovir disoproxil fumarate and it has been associated with loss of bone mineral density along with kidney tubulopathy, particularly with long-term exposure [71], a new safer tenofovir alafenamide (TAF) formulation has been approved [72,73]. It is foreseeable that TAF will become part of any backbone antiviral regimen built against HDV infection.

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Hepatitis delta virus entry inhibitors

Targeting the NTCP receptor can prevent virus entry. The myristoylated pre-S-peptide (Myrcludex-B; MYR GmbH, Burgweder, Germany), derived from the pre-S1 domain of HBsAg, can specifically bind to NTCP. In a phase II study, the administration of myrcludex-B for 24 weeks along with peginterferon led to significant drops in HDV-RNA, although only one out of seven individuals experienced sustained viral clearance upon drug discontinuation [74,75]. Unexpectedly, reductions in serum HBsAg were only mild with Myrcludex-B. Moreover, the drug has to be administered subcutaneously and is associated with the development of antibodies, which may preclude its long-term efficacy [76]. In contrast with other antivirals, selection of drug resistance does not seem to be a challenge with entry inhibitors, given that NTCP is a host protein and does not exhibit significant variability. Studies testing a lead-in phase with Myrcludex-B followed by other antivirals are currently ongoing [75].

Another strategy to inhibit HBV entry is to downregulate NTCP expression on hepatocytes. Hence, investigation of antagonists of NCTP expression (i.e. ro41–5253, IL-6 or epithelial growth factor) may help develop new viral entry inhibitors [77]. Anyway, concern exists that long-term blockade or downward expression of NTCP receptors may adversely affect bilirubin and bile acid transport and metabolism.

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Hepatitis delta virus maturation inhibitors

No specific antivirals against HDV had been developed until recently. Figure 7 schematically represents the potential targets in the virus life cycle. Given that the HDV envelope belongs to HBV, attempts for virus entry inhibition (i.e. Myrcludex-B) block without distinction HBV and HDV. However, within infected cells, once synthesized from mRNA, the carboxy-terminal end of the large HDV antigen requires the addition of a 15 carbonyl (farnesyl) group. This process is catalyzed by a host cellular enzyme, the farnesyl transferase [16]. This posttranslational modification allows the isoprenylated large HDV antigen, as part of the viral ribonucleoprotein, to join the endoplasmic reticulum in which budding of HBsAg-membrane-derived complexes occurs before moving outside infected hepatocytes as complete viral particles.

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Inhibition of farnesylation of the large HDV antigen blocks the assembly of viral particles. In a human proof-of-concept phase 2a double-blinded randomized placebo-controlled trial, 14 hepatitis delta patients were treated with 100 or 200 mg of lonafarnib for 4 weeks. Mean drops in serum HDV-RNA of 0.75 and 1.54 log IU/ml were seen in each group, respectively [78]. However, gastrointestinal tolerance was poor and dose-dependent. Currently, phase 3 trials using lower doses of lonafarnib boosted with ritonavir, a pharmacokinetic enhancer, are being tested. Preliminary results in 15 patients have confirmed the improved tolerance of this regimen along with significant HDV-RNA declines [79]. Interestingly, HBV rebounds occurred in a few patients who experienced rapid HDV-RNA drops, indirectly reflecting the suppressive effect of HDV on HBV. As previously discussed with Myrcludex-B, selection of drug resistance does not seem to be a challenge with prenylation inhibitors, given that farnesyl transferase is a host protein and does not exhibit significant variability.

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Nucleic acid polymers

Synthetic oligonucleotides that incorporate a sulfur atom depict high stability and may interact with glycoproteins. Used as antivirals, these amphipatic (hydrophobic) polymers function as broad spectrum viral attachment/entry inhibitors. Interestingly, a few of these compounds work against HBV with a unique postentry activity blocking HBsAg release from infected hepatocytes [80].

Different NAPs (REP-2055, REP-2139 and REP-2165) have been shown to block the release of HBsAg. When administered intravenously for 15 weeks with or without pegylated IFNα in 12 HDV patients, significant reductions in serum HBsAg, HBV-DNA and HDV-RNA were seen, along with development of anti-HBs in half [81]. Although viral rebound was seen after treatment discontinuation, roughly half of patients maintained HDV suppression [82]. In light to the tolerance of NAPs so far, additional trials should continue to examine their safety, efficacy and tolerability. The transition to subcutaneous administration of NAPs will favor their clinical development. Table 3 summarizes the main findings in therapeutic studies performed so far in hepatitis delta patients.

Table 3

Table 3

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Liver transplantation for hepatitis delta

Decompensated cirrhosis and HCC are the last steps of any liver disease, including hepatitis delta, which causes the most severe form of viral hepatitis. Hepatic replacement using a transplanted healthy liver provides a unique survival benefit. As HBV reinfection of the allograft in the recipient can be successfully prevented using HBV immunoglobulins plus nucleos(t)ide analogs, and HDV requires HBV to propagate, hepatitis delta can be averted in most cases with liver transplantation [83,84]. This is a major breakthrough for the subset of patients with advanced hepatitis delta and currently the best option for survival [83].

The experience of liver transplantation in patients with HIV infection and hepatitis delta is scarce. However, results do not seem to differ from those in HIV-negative individuals, as long as HIV replication is well suppressed with adequate antiretroviral therapy and drug interactions with immunosuppressants are well managed [85]. In this regard, the use of antivirals active against both HBV and HIV, such as tenofovir and lamivudine (or emtricitabine), must be ensured.

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Summary and future research for hepatitis delta

Forty years after its discovery, the hepatology and infectious diseases’ medical community is finally coming to realize the importance of HDV infection in HBV and HBV/HIV-coinfected patients. HDV causes the most severe form of viral hepatitis, and 15 million people are affected worldwide.

Hepatitis delta should no longer be a neglected disease. It is time to confront the issue of underdiagnosis, testing for antidelta antibody all HBsAg carriers. This recommendation would be much easier in HIV-positive individuals, given that they are already on regular follow-up. HDV-seroreactive individuals should be monitored closely, measuring viral load and staging liver fibrosis. Anti-HBV therapy with nucleos(t)ide analogs must be considered for those with detectable and significant HBV-DNA levels to minimize any preventable contribution of HBV on liver disease. Efforts for better understand the extent of HBV on the severity of HDV hepatic damage must be encouraged.

Although information from individuals with simultaneous exposure to HBV and HDV (coinfection instead of superinfection) suggest that HBsAg clearance is followed by HDV-RNA elimination even when anti-HDV antibody reactivity may persist for years [30], it is unknown to what extent occasional HBsAg clearance in patients with chronic HBV/HDV infection may lead to HDV elimination [70]. Efforts to identify such patients and to provide longitudinal follow-up may help clarifying HDV dependence on HBV for persistence. Of note, results of HDV-RNA testing should be compared in patients who seroconvert from HBsAg to anti-HBs versus those that clear HBsAg without seroconversion [70].

The risk of HDV relapse in patients who experience HBV reactivation for any reason, including the use of immunosuppressors [86,87] or antivirals for hepatitis C [88,89], must be investigated, especially in patients with current or prior evidence of anti-HDV antibodies. This information will be crucial to establish whether HDV reservoirs may exist. For instance, if HDV rebound does not occur with HBV reactivation, it would be worth trying treatment strategies focused on achieving complete suppression of HDV replication for a definite time frame without the need for pursuing in-parallel HBsAg and/or cccDNA clearance.

Finally, the advent of distinct classes of antivirals that block several steps of the HDV life cycle has opened the opportunity to test the efficacy of combination therapy. Studies exploring the activity of HDV entry plus prenylation inhibitors with or without pegylated IFNα must be encouraged. Current evidence supports the concept that any attempt to block HDV replication must ensure that HBV suppression is present to avoid HBV escape following removal of HDV interference. In this regard, there is no doubt that hepatitis delta therapeutics will be pushed by current advances in HBV drug development [12,77].

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Acknowledgements

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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Keywords:

antiviral therapy; hepatitis delta; HIV coinfection; liver disease

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