Hepatitis B virus (HBV) X protein (HBx) and pre-S2 deletion mutant large surface antigens are oncoproteins that induce hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). The interaction of these two oncoproteins in hepatocytes and its significance in tumorigenesis remain to be elucidated. In this study, we observed the co-expression of HBx with surface antigens in ground-glass hepatocytes in 5 of 20 hepatitis B surface antigen-positive livers. In vitro, hepatocytes co-expressing HBx and a pre-S2 mutant showed enhanced expression of vascular endothelial growth factor-A, phosphorylated Akt 1/2/3, phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2, and phosphorylated mammalian target of rapamycin signals. Transgenic mice harboring both HBx and pre-S2 mutant construct plasmids developed HCCs at an average of 15.1 months, earlier than animals carrying either HBx (16.9 months) or pre-S2 mutant (24.5 months) alone. The oncogenic signals of vascular endothelial growth factor-A, phosphorylated Akt 1/2/3, phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2, and phosphorylated mammalian target of rapamycin were sequentially and differentially activated at different stages in tumorigenesis. Phosphorylated mTOR was consistently activated in transgenic and human HCCs. We conclude that ground-glass hepatocytes co-expressing HBx and surface antigens exhibit enhanced oncogenic effects and tumorigenesis in chronic HBV infections. The mTOR signal cascade may be the key regulator in HBV tumorigenesis and may be useful targets in the design of HCC therapy.
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