Hemagglutinins of avian influenza viruses are proteolytically activated by TMPRSS2 in human and murine airway cells

Cleavage of the influenza A virus (IAV) hemagglutinin (HA) by host proteases is indispensable for virus replication. Most IAVs possess a monobasic HA cleavage site cleaved by trypsin-like proteases. Previously, the transmembrane protease TMPRSS2 was shown to be essential for proteolytic activation of IAV HA subtypes H1, H2, H7 and H10 in mice. In contrast, additional proteases are involved in activation of certain H3 IAVs, indicating that HAs with monobasic cleavage site can differ in their sensitivity to host proteases. Here, we investigated the role of TMPRSS2 in proteolytic activation of avian HA subtypes H1 to H11 and H14 to H16 in human and mouse airway cell cultures. Using reassortant viruses carrying representative HAs, we analysed HA cleavage and multicycle replication in (i) lung cells of TMPRSS2-deficient mice and (ii) Calu-3 cells and primary human bronchial cells subjected to morpholino oligomer-mediated knockdown of TMPRSS2 activity. TMPRSS2 was found to be crucial for activation of H1 to H11, H14 and H15 in airway cells of human and mouse. Only H9 with an R-S-S-R cleavage site and H16 were proteolytically activated in the absence of TMPRSS2 activity, albeit with reduced efficiency. Moreover, a TMPRSS2-orthologous protease from duck supported activation of H1 to H11, H15 and H16 in MDCK cells. Together, our data demonstrate that in human and murine respiratory cells, TMPRSS2 is the major activating protease of almost all IAV HA subtypes with monobasic cleavage site. Furthermore, our results suggest that TMPRSS2 supports activation of IAV with monobasic cleavage site in ducks. Importance Human infections with avian influenza A viruses upon exposure to infected birds are frequently reported and have received attention as a potential pandemic threat. Cleavage of the envelope glycoprotein hemagglutinin (HA) by host proteases is a prerequisite for membrane fusion and essential for virus infectivity. In this study, we identify the transmembrane protease TMPRSS2 as the major activating protease of avian influenza virus HAs of subtypes H1 to H11, H14 and H15 in human and murine airway cells. Our data demonstrate that inhibition of TMPRSS2 activity may provide a useful approach for the treatment of human infections with avian influenza viruses that should be considered for pandemic preparedness as well. Additionally, we show that a TMPRSS2-orthologous protease from duck can activate avian influenza virus HAs with a monobasic cleavage site and thus represents a potential virus-activating protease in waterfowl, the primary reservoir for influenza A viruses.



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