Hepatitis viruses: live and let die


Kerstin Herzer, Deptartment I of Internal Medicine, Mainz University, Mainz, Germany.
e-mail: herzer@uni-mainz.de


Viral hepatitis is a diffuse inflammatory reaction of the liver caused by hepatotropic viruses. Among the hepatitis viruses, only hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus are able to persist in the host and cause chronic hepatitis. In the course of persistent infection, inflammation forms the pathogenetic basis of chronic hepatitis that can lead to nodular fibrosis, which can progress to cirrhosis and, eventually, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Of the different antiviral defense systems employed by the host, apoptosis significantly contributes to the prevention of viral replication, dissemination, and persistence. Pathomorphologic studies have shown acidophilic bodies and hepatocyte dropout, features that are compatible with apoptosis. The number of hepatocytes showing features of apoptosis in patients with chronic hepatitis B and C was found to be higher than in healthy subjects, indicating that apoptosis is involved in the pathogenesis of these diseases. There are various data suggesting that hepatitis B and C viral proteins may modulate apoptosis. Vice versa, mechanisms of apoptosis inhibition might represent central survival strategies employed by the virus which, in the end, may contribute to HCC development. While the expression and retention of viral proteins in hepatocytes may influence the severity and progression of liver disease, the mechanisms of liver injury in viral hepatitis are defined to be due not only to the direct cytopathic effects of viruses, but also to the host immune response to viral proteins expressed by infected hepatocytes. However, the exact role of these observations in relation to pathogenesis remains to be established. The mechanism and systems are complex. This report aims to provide an overview and intends to cite only a small number of pertinent references.