Interferons α and β (IFN-α/β) are type I interferons produced by the host to control microbial infections. However, the use of IFN-α to treat hepatitis B virus (HBV) patients generated sustained response to only a minority of patients. By using HBV transgenic mice as a model and by using hydrodynamic injection to introduce HBV DNA into the mouse liver, we studied the effect of IFN-α/β on HBV in vivo. Interestingly, our results indicated that IFN-α/β could have opposite effects on HBV: they suppressed HBV replication when viral load was high and enhanced HBV replication when viral load was low. IFN-α/β apparently suppressed HBV replication via transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulations. In contrast, IFN-α/β enhanced viral replication by inducing the transcription factor HNF3γ and activating STAT3, which together stimulated HBV gene expression and replication. Further studies revealed an important role of IFN-α/β in stimulating viral growth and prolonging viremia when viral load is low. This use of an innate immune response to enhance its replication and persistence may represent a novel strategy that HBV uses to enhance its growth and spread in the early stage of viral infection when the viral level is low
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