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Mother-infant transmission of hepatitis B virus (HBV) accounts for up to 30% of worldwide chronic infections. The mechanism and high-risk period of HBV transmission from mother to infant are unknown.
Although largely prevented by neonatal vaccination, significant transmission continues to occur in high-risk populations. It is unclear whether HBV can traverse an intact epithelial barrier to infect a new host. Transplacental transmission of a number of viruses relies on transcytotic pathways across placental cells.
We wished to determine whether infectious HBV can traverse a polarized trophoblast monolayer. We used a human placenta-derived cell line, BeWo, cultured on membranes as polarized monolayers, to model the maternal-fetal barrier.
We assessed the effects of placental maturity and maternal immunoglobulin on viral transport. Intracellular viral trafficking pathways were investigated by confocal microscopy.
Free HBV (and infectious duck hepatitis B virus) transcytosed across trophoblastic cells at a rate of 5% in 30 min. Viral transport occurred in microtubule-dependent endosomal vesicles.
Additionally, confocal microscopy showed that the internalized virus traverses a monensin-sensitive endosomal compartment. Differentiation of the cytotrophoblasts to syncytiotrophoblasts resulted in a 25% reduction in viral transcytosis, suggesting that placental maturity may protect the fetus. Virus translocation was also reduced in the presence of HBV immunoglobulin.
We show for the first time that transcytosis of infectious hepadnavirus can occur across a trophoblastic barrier early in gestation, with the risk of transmission being reduced by placental maturity and specific maternal antibody.
This study suggests a mechanism by which mother-infant transmission may occur.