PLoS pathogens

Human papillomaviruses activate the ATM DNA damage pathway for viral genome amplification upon differentiation.

PMID 19798429


Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are the causative agents of cervical cancers. The infectious HPV life cycle is closely linked to the differentiation state of the host epithelia, with viral genome amplification, late gene expression and virion production restricted to suprabasal cells. The E6 and E7 proteins provide an environment conducive to DNA synthesis upon differentiation, but little is known concerning the mechanisms that regulate productive viral genome amplification. Using keratinocytes that stably maintain HPV-31 episomes, and chemical inhibitors, we demonstrate that viral proteins activate the ATM DNA damage response in differentiating cells, as indicated by phosphorylation of CHK2, BRCA1 and NBS1. This activation is necessary for viral genome amplification, as well as for formation of viral replication foci. In contrast, inhibition of ATM kinase activity in undifferentiated keratinocytes had no effect on the stable maintenance of viral genomes. Previous studies have shown that HPVs induce low levels of caspase 3/7 activation upon differentiation and that this is important for cleavage of the E1 replication protein and genome amplification. Our studies demonstrate that caspase cleavage is induced upon differentiation of HPV positive cells through the action of the DNA damage protein kinase CHK2, which may be activated as a result of E7 binding to the ATM kinase. These findings identify a major regulatory mechanism responsible for productive HPV replication in differentiating cells. Our results have potential implications for the development of anti-viral therapies to treat HPV infections.