Chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is characterized by sustained liver inflammation with an influx of lymphocytes, which contributes to the development of cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. The mechanisms underlying this immune-mediated hepatic pathogenesis remain ill defined. We report in this article that repetitive infusion of anti-CD137 agonist mAb in HBV-transgenic mice closely mimics this process by sequentially inducing hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and, ultimately, liver cancer. CD137 mAb initially triggers hepatic inflammatory infiltration due to activation of nonspecific CD8+ T cells with memory phenotype. CD8+ T cell-derived IFN-γ plays a central role in the progression of chronic liver diseases by actively recruiting hepatic macrophages to produce fibrosis-promoting cytokines and chemokines, including TNF-α, IL-6, and MCP-1. Importantly, the natural ligand of CD137 was upregulated significantly in circulating CD14+ monocytes in patients with chronic hepatitis B infection and closely correlated with development of liver cirrhosis. Thus, sustained CD137 stimulation may be a contributing factor for liver immunopathology in chronic HBV infection. Our studies reveal a common molecular pathway that is used to defend against viral infection but also causes chronic hepatic diseases.
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