Cleavage of influenza virus hemagglutinin (HA) by host cell proteases is essential for virus infectivity and spread. We previously demonstrated in vitro that the transmembrane protease TMPRSS2 cleaves influenza A and B virus (IAV/IBV) HA possessing a monobasic cleavage site. Subsequent studies revealed that TMPRSS2 is crucial for activation and pathogenesis of H1N1pdm and H7N9 IAV in mice. In contrast, activation of H3N2 IAV and IBV was found to be independent of TMPRSS2 expression and supported by as-yet undetermined protease(s).
Here, we investigated the role of TMPRSS2 in proteolytic activation of IAV and IBV in three human airway cell culture systems: primary human bronchial epithelial cells (HBEC), primary type II alveolar epithelial cells (AECII) and Calu-3 cells. Knockdown of TMPRSS2 expression was performed using a previously described antisense peptide-conjugated phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomer, T-ex5, that interferes with splicing of TMPRSS2 pre-mRNA, resulting in the expression of enzymatically inactive TMPRSS2. T-ex5 treatment produced efficient knockdown of active TMPRSS2 in all three airway cell culture models and prevented proteolytic activation and multiplication of H7N9 IAV in Calu-3 cells and H1N1pdm, H7N9 and H3N2 IAV in HBEC and AECII. T-ex5 treatment also inhibited activation and spread of IBV in AECII, but did not affect IBV activation in HBEC and Calu-3 cells.
This study identifies TMPRSS2 as the major HA-activating protease of IAV in human airway cells and IBV in type II pneumocytes and as a potential target for the development of novel drugs to treat influenza infections.
Influenza A and B viruses (IAV/IBV) cause significant morbidity and mortality during seasonal outbreaks. Cleavage of the viral surface glycoprotein hemagglutinin (HA) by host proteases is a prerequisite for membrane fusion and essential for virus infectivity. Inhibition of relevant proteases provides a promising therapeutic approach that may avoid the development of drug resistance. HA of most influenza viruses is cleaved at a monobasic cleavage site and a number of proteases have been shown to cleave HA in vitro. This study demonstrates that the transmembrane protease TMPRSS2 is the major HA-activating protease of IAV in primary human bronchial cells and of both IAV and IBV in primary human type II pneumocytes. It further reveals that human and murine airway cells can differ in their HA-cleaving protease repertoire. Our data will help drive the development of potent and selective protease inhibitors as novel drugs for influenza treatment.