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Keywords:

  • chronic hepatitis B;
  • furin;
  • gene expression;
  • immune tolerance;
  • proprotein convertase

Aim:  The mechanisms underlying development of chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection are related to immune tolerance, but are as yet incompletely understood. Furin has been found to be essential for maintenance of peripheral immune tolerance mediated by regulatory T cells (Treg). Such effect of furin on chronic HBV infection was investigated in this study.

Methods:  Peripheral blood from 40 individuals with self-limited HBV infection, 40 patients with asymptomatic persistent HBV infection and 40 patients with chronic hepatitis B (CHB) was collected and mRNA expression levels of furin, transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1 and the Treg-function-related forkhead transcription factor FoxP3 were detected using quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction. CD4+CD25+FoxP3+ Treg were detected using flow cytometry.

Results:  Furin mRNA expression in peripheral blood was significantly higher in patients with persistent HBV infection than in individuals with self-limited infection (P < 0.01), and was much higher in CHB patients than in those with asymptomatic persistent infection (P < 0.01). Furthermore, furin mRNA was relatively higher in patients with positive hepatitis B e antigen and higher levels of serum HBV DNA (>10 000 copies/mL). In patients with CHB, furin mRNA expression was found to correlate with TGF-β1 mRNA and FoxP3 mRNA expression using Spearman's rank correlation coefficient test. It was 5.7-times higher in CD4+CD25+ T cells than in CD4+CD25 T cells and correlated with the frequency of Treg (P < 0.05).

Conclusion:  Furin mRNA expression in peripheral blood correlates with chronic HBV infection and liver damage, and seems to participate in immune inhibitory and anti-inflammatory mechanisms in HBV infection, mediated by TGF-β1 and/or Treg.