High-mobility group box-1 (HMGB1) protein, as one of the well-known damage-associated molecular pattern molecules (DAMPs), is enriched in chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection and has a context-dependent role in autophagy, a highly conserved self-digestive process in response to environmental stress. Recent mouse studies indicate that autophagy is highly active in regulatory T (Treg)-cells. In the present study, we evaluated spontaneous and induced autophagy of peripheral Treg cells from 98 patients with chronic hepatitis B (CHB), by measuring levels of lipidated form of microtubule-associated light chain 3 (LC3-II, marker for closed autophagosomes) and observing autophagic vacuoles (AV) with transmission electron microscope. No significant difference was found in spontaneous autophagy of either Treg or CD4+ naive cells when comparing CHB patients with healthy subjects, apart from CHB-Treg showed significantly higher autophagic activity after activation by anti-CD3–CD28 beads. Besides, incubation of CHB-Treg cells with CHB-serum greatly maintained their autophagic behaviour, which could be significantly diminished by blocking HMGB1 with the neutralizing antibody. Further, we characterized time- and dose-dependent effects by recombinant HMGB1 protein on autophagy of CHB-Treg cells. We also documented a significant up-regulation of HMGB1 and its receptors [toll-like receptor (TLR4), receptor for advanced glycation end-product (RAGE)] in both peripheral and intra-hepatic microenvironments of CHB patients. Moreover, the RAGE–extracellular regulated protein kinases (ERK) axis and rapamycin-sensitive components of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathways were demonstrated in vitro to be involved in HMGB1-induced autophagy of Treg cells. Additionally, HMGB1-induced autophagy could maintain cell survival and functional stability of CHB-Treg cells. Our findings could open new perspectives in developing therapeutic strategies to activate specific anti-HBV immunity by diminishing Treg autophagy.

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