Cytokine Response of Natural Killer Cells to Hepatitis B Virus Infection Depends on Monocyte Co-Stimulation

Paul Kupke, Johanna Brucker, Jochen M. Wettengel, Ulrike Protzer, Jürgen J. Wenzel, Hans J. Schlitt, Edward K. Geissler, Jens M. Werner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a major driver of chronic hepatic inflammation, which regularly leads to liver cirrhosis or hepatocellular carcinoma. Immediate innate immune cell response is crucial for the rapid clearance of the infection. Here, natural killer (NK) cells play a pivotal role in direct cytotoxicity and the secretion of antiviral cytokines as well as regulatory function. The aim of this study was to further elucidate NK cell responses triggered by an HBV infection. Therefore, we optimized HBV in vitro models that reliably stimulate NK cells using hepatocyte-like HepG2 cells expressing the Na+-taurocholate co-transporting polypeptide (NTCP) and HepaRG cells. Immune cells were acquired from healthy platelet donors. Initially, HepG2-NTCP cells demonstrated higher viral replication compared to HepaRG cells. Co-cultures with immune cells revealed increased production of interferon-γ and tumor necrosis factor-α by NK cells, which was no longer evident in isolated NK cells. Likewise, the depletion of monocytes and spatial separation from target cells led to the absence of the antiviral cytokine production of NK cells. Eventually, the combined co-culture of isolated NK cells and monocytes led to a sufficient cytokine response of NK cells, which was also apparent when communication between the two immune cell subpopulations was restricted to soluble factors. In summary, our study demonstrates antiviral cytokine production by NK cells in response to HBV+ HepG2-NTCP cells, which is dependent on monocyte bystander activation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number741
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • HBV
  • HepG2
  • HepaRG
  • NK cells
  • NTCP
  • bystander activation
  • hepatitis B virus
  • monocytes
  • natural killer cells


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