PLoS Pathog. 2023 Jun 16;19(6):e1011459. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1011459. Online ahead of print.
Human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) is the etiologic cause of adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATL) and encodes a viral oncoprotein (Hbz) that is consistently expressed in asymptomatic carriers and ATL patients, suggesting its importance in the development and maintenance of HTLV-1 leukemic cells. Our previous work found Hbz protein is dispensable for virus-mediated T-cell immortalization but enhances viral persistence. We and others have also shown that hbz mRNA promotes T-cell proliferation. In our current studies, we evaluated the role of hbz mRNA on HTLV-1-mediated immortalization in vitro as well as in vivo persistence and disease development. We generated mutant proviral clones to examine the individual contributions of hbz mRNA, hbz mRNA secondary structure (stem-loop), and Hbz protein. Wild-type (WT) and all mutant viruses produced virions and immortalized T-cells in vitro. Viral persistence and disease development were also evaluated in vivo by infection of a rabbit model and humanized immune system (HIS) mice, respectively. Proviral load and sense and antisense viral gene expression were significantly lower in rabbits infected with mutant viruses lacking Hbz protein compared to WT or virus with an altered hbz mRNA stem-loop (M3 mutant). HIS mice infected with Hbz protein-deficient viruses showed significantly increased survival times compared to animals infected with WT or M3 mutant virus. Altered hbz mRNA secondary structure, or loss of hbz mRNA or protein, has no significant effect on T-cell immortalization induced by HTLV-1 in vitro; however, the Hbz protein plays a critical role in establishing viral persistence and leukemogenesis in vivo.