Quantifying the relative contribution of free virus and cell-to-cell transmission routes to the propagation of hepatitis C virus infections in vitro using an agent-based model
Experiments have shown that hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections in vitro disseminate both distally via the release and diffusion of cell-free virus through the medium, and locally via direct, cell-to-cell transmission. To determine the relative contribution of each mode of infection to HCV dissemination, we developed an agent-based model (ABM) that explicitly incorporates both distal and local modes of infection. The ABM tracks the concentration of extracellular infectious virus in the supernatant and the number of intracellular HCV RNA segments within each infected cell over the course of simulated in vitro HCV infections. Experimental data for in vitro HCV infections conducted in the presence and absence of free-virus neutralizing antibodies was used to validate the ABM and constrain the value of its parameters. We found that direct, cell-to-cell infection accounts for 99% (84%$-$100%, 95% credible interval) of infection events, making it the dominant mode of HCV dissemination in vitro. Yet, when infection via the free-virus route is blocked, a 57% reduction in the number of infection events at 72 hpi is observed experimentally; a result consistent with that found by our ABM. Taken together, these findings suggest that while HCV spread via cell-free virus contributes little to the total number of infection events in vitro, it plays a critical role in enhancing cell-to-cell HCV dissemination by providing access to distant, uninfected areas, away from the already established large infection foci.