Genetic instability is intimately associated with tumour development. In particular, liver cancers associated with hepatitis B virus (HBV) exhibit high genetic instability; however, our understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms remains limited. In this study, we found that γ-H2AX, a marker of DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs), and the levels of phospho-Chk2 (p-Chk2, the activated form) were significantly elevated in HBV-associated hepatocellular carcinomas and neighbouring regenerating nodules. Likewise, introduction of the pHBV or pMyc-HBx plasmids into cells induced accumulation of γ-H2AX foci and increased the p-Chk2 level. In these cells, inhibitory phosphorylation of Cdc25C phosphatase (Ser(216)) and CDK1 (Tyr(15)) was elevated; consequently, cell-cycle progression was delayed at G2/M phase, suggesting that activation of the ATM-Chk2 pathway by the HBV X protein (HBx) induces cell-cycle delay. Accordingly, inhibition of ataxia telangiectasia mutated (ATM) by caffeine or siRNA abolished the increase in the p-Chk2 level and restored the delayed CDK1 kinase activity in ChangX cells. We also found that cytoplasmic HBx, but not nuclear HBx, induced reactive oxygen species (ROS) production and led to the accumulation of γ-H2AX foci and the increased p-Chk2 level. Together, these data indicate that HBx-induced ROS accumulation induces DNA damage that activates the ATM-Chk2 pathway. Our findings provide insight into the mechanisms of HBV pathogenesis.
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