Morphologic and molecular analysis of liver injury after SARS-CoV-2 vaccination reveals distinct characteristics.

Journal of hepatology

BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Liver injury after COVID-19 vaccination is very rare and shows clinical and histomorphological similarities with autoimmune hepatitis (AIH). Little is known about the pathophysiology of COVID-19 vaccine-induced liver injury (VILI) and its relationship to AIH. Therefore, we compared VILI with AIH.METHODS: Formalin-fixed and paraffin-embedded liver biopsy samples from patients with VILI (n=6) and from patients with an initial diagnosis of AIH (n=9) were included. Both cohorts were compared by histomorphological evaluation, whole-transcriptome and spatial transcriptome sequencing, multiplex immunofluorescence and immune repertoire sequencing.RESULTS: Histomorphology was similar in both cohorts but showed more pronounced centrilobular necrosis in VILI. Gene expression profiling showed that mitochondrial metabolism and oxidative stress-related pathways were more and interferon response pathways less enriched in VILI. Multiplex analysis revealed that inflammation in VILI was dominated by CD8 effector T cells, similar to drug-induced autoimmune like hepatitis (DI-AILH). In contrast, AIH showed a dominance of CD4 effector T cells and CD79a B and plasma cells. T-cell receptor (TCR) and B-cell receptor (BCR) sequencing showed that T- and B-cell clones were more dominant in VILI than in AIH. In addition, many T-cell clones detected in the liver were also found in the blood. Interestingly, analysis of TCR beta chain and Ig heavy chain variable-joining gene usage further showed that TRBV6-1, TRBV5-1, TRBV7-6 and IgHV1-24 genes are used differently in VILI than in AIH.CONCLUSIONS: Our analyses support that SARS-CoV-2 vaccination-induced liver injury is related to AIH but also shows distinct differences from AIH in histomorphology, pathway activation, cellular immune infiltrates, and TCR usage. VILI may be a separate entity, which is distinct from AIH and more closely related to DI-AILH.IMPACT AND IMPLICATIONS: Little is known about the pathophysiology of COVID-19 vaccine-induced liver injury. Our analysis shows that COVID-19 vaccine-induced liver injury shares some similarities with autoimmune hepatitis, but also has distinct differences such as increased activation of metabolic pathways, a more prominent CD8+ T cell infiltrate, and an oligoclonal T and B cell response. Our findings suggest that vaccine-induced liver injury is a distinct disease entity. Therefore, there is a good chance that many patients with COVID-19 vaccine-induced liver injury will recover completely and do not develop long-term autoimmune hepatitis.

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Journal of hepatology
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