Alcohol abuse reduces response rates to IFN therapy in patients with chronic hepatitis C. To model the molecular mechanisms behind this phenotype, we characterized the effects of ethanol on Jak-Stat and MAPK pathways in Huh7 human hepatoma cells, in HCV replicon cell lines, and in primary human hepatocytes. High physiological concentrations of acute ethanol activated the Jak-Stat and p38 MAPK pathways and inhibited HCV replication in several independent replicon cell lines. Moreover, acute ethanol induced Stat1 serine phosphorylation, which was partially mediated by the p38 MAPK pathway. In contrast, when combined with exogenously applied IFN-α, ethanol inhibited the antiviral actions of IFN against HCV replication, involving inhibition of IFN-induced Stat1 tyrosine phosphorylation. These effects of alcohol occurred independently of i) alcohol metabolism via ADH and CYP2E1, and ii) cytotoxic or cytostatic effects of ethanol. In this model system, ethanol directly perturbs the Jak-Stat pathway, and HCV replication.
Infection with Hepatitis C virus is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality throughout the world. With a propensity to progress to chronic infection, approximately 70% of patients with chronic viremia develop histological evidence of chronic liver diseases including chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma. The situation is even more dire for patients who abuse ethanol, where the risk of developing end stage liver disease is significantly higher as compared to HCV patients who do not drink [1,2].
Recombinant interferon alpha (IFN-α) therapy produces sustained responses (ie clearance of viremia) in 8–12% of patients with chronic hepatitis C . Significant improvements in response rates can be achieved with IFN plus ribavirin combination [4-6] and pegylated IFN plus ribavirin [7,8] therapies. However, over 50% of chronically infected patients still do not clear viremia. Moreover, HCV-infected patients who abuse alcohol have extremely low response rates to IFN therapy , but the mechanisms involved have not been clarified.
MAPKs play essential roles in regulation of differentiation, cell growth, and responses to cytokines, chemokines and stress. The core element in MAPK signaling consists of a module of 3 kinases, named MKKK, MKK, and MAPK, which sequentially phosphorylate each other . Currently, four MAPK modules have been characterized in mammalian cells: Extracellular Regulated Kinases (ERK1 and 2), Stress activated/c-Jun N terminal kinase (SAPK/JNK), p38 MAP kinases, and ERK5 . Interestingly, ethanol modulates MAPKs . However, information on how ethanol affects MAPKs in the context of innate antiviral pathways such as the Jak-Stat pathway in human cells is extremely limited.
When IFN-α binds its receptor, two receptor associated tyrosine kinases, Tyk2 and Jak1 become activated by phosphorylation, and phosphorylate Stat1 and Stat2 on conserved tyrosine residues . Stat1 and Stat2 combine with the IRF-9 protein to form the transcription factor interferon stimulated gene factor 3 (ISGF-3), which binds to the interferon stimulated response element (ISRE), and induces transcription of IFN-α-induced genes (ISG). The ISGs mediate the antiviral effects of IFN. The transcriptional activities of Stats 1, 3, 4, 5a, and 5b are also regulated by serine phosphorylation . Phosphorylation of Stat1 on a conserved serine amino acid at position 727 (S727), results in maximal transcriptional activity of the ISGF-3 transcription factor complex . Although cross-talk between p38 MAPK and the Jak-Stat pathway is essential for IFN-induced ISRE transcription, p38 does not participate in IFN induction of Stat1 serine phosphorylation [14,16-19]. However, cellular stress responses induced by stimuli such as ultraviolet light do induce p38 MAPK mediated Stat1 S727 phosphorylation .
In the current report, we postulated that alcohol and HCV proteins modulate MAPK and Jak-Stat pathways in human liver cells. To begin to address these issues, we characterized the interaction of acute ethanol on Jak-Stat and MAPK pathways in Huh7 cells, HCV replicon cells lines, and primary human hepatocytes.