Virus-induced thrombocytopenia is a severe complication in immunocompromised hosts. Among patients following allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (allo-HSCT), human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) infection contributes to a variety of end-organ diseases and hematological complications, leading to increased mortality. Even with antiviral treatment, HCMV remains a potentially lethal infection due to the lack of understanding of the underlying mechanisms of host-virus interactions. The key to solving this problem is to identify the factors that predispose patients to HCMV infection and carry out targeted therapy. Here, we investigated the megakaryo/thrombopoiesis process, including the thrombopoietin (TPO)/c-Mpl pathway, after HCMV infection in vivo and in vitro, screened for susceptible subsets of megakaryocytes (MKs) and explored novel therapeutic targets for HCMV infection.


To test whether thrombocytopenia induced by HCMV results from an impaired megakaryo/thrombopoiesis process, we studied the impact of HCMV in an in vivo model of HCMV DNAemia patients following allo-HSCT and an in vitro model of bone marrow CD34+-derived MKs infected with serum from HCMV DNAemia patients. Forty patients who had received allo-HSCT were enrolled in this study, among whom 18 recipients had HCMV DNAemia and 22 were HCMV negative, and bone marrow-derived mononuclear cells (MNCs) from patients were tested for CD41, vWF, pp65, c-Mpl, PDGFR, αvβ3 and TLR2 using flow cytometry (FCM). Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) was used to detect HCMV capsids inside MKs. Cell apoptosis was measured by Annexin V. MK ploidy was determined by FCM for propidium iodide (PI) staining. Finally, inhibitors of PDGFR (IMC-3G3 and Gleevec), αvβ3 and TLR2 were cocultured with MKs.


Our data showed that pp65+ cells accounted for 40.59±6.12% of total CD41+vWF+ MKs from HCMV DNAemia patients, and there was a significant increase in the expression of αvβ3, PDGFR and TLR2 in pp65+ MKs compared with that in control patients. Furthermore, the percentage of PDGFR+αvβ3+ MKs emerged as an independent factor associated with HCMV infection in multivariate analysis (p = 0.008). MKs in HCMV-infected patients showed increased apoptosis and necrosis and different patterns of MK ploidy distribution compared with those in HCMV-negative patients, with a decreased proportion from 16N to 64N and a peak at 8N. Meanwhile, the expression of TPO receptor c-Mpl was lower in pp65+ MKs from HCMV DNAemia patients (0.77±0.38% in pp65+ MKs from HCMV DNAemia patients, 1.75±0.40% in pp65- MKs from HCMV DNAemia patients, 1.97±0.67% in MKs from HCMV-negative patients, and 2.06±0.29% in MKs from healthy controls, p<0.01) while the TPO level in serum was increased compared with that in controls. Next, we established an in vitro HCMV infection model of CD34+-derived MKs with serum from HCMV DNAemia patients, and the laboratory HCMV strain Towne was used as a positive control. After 9 days of coculturing, the viral capsids of HCMV were observed in the nuclei of MKs (Figure 1A), and HCMV infection increased the apoptosis of MKs and shifted them to low ploidy, with a significant decrease in platelet release. As with the in vivo results, c-Mpl was downregulated in HCMV-infected MKs. The expression levels of PDGFR, TLR2 and αvβ3 on MKs were increased in coculture with HCMV DNAemia serum, and pp65-positive MKs were decreased compared with the control after treatment with inhibitors of PDGFR and αvβ3 (Figure 1B). However, neither Gleevec nor anti-TLR2 altered the HCMV infection rate.


Our study showed that HCMV could impair megakaryopoiesis throughout maturation, apoptosis, and platelet generation via the TPO/c-Mpl pathway both in vivo and in vitro. MKs with PDGFR+ and αvβ3+ phenotypes are susceptible to HCMV infection and we proposed PDGFR and αvβ3 inhibitors as potential therapeutic alternatives for allo-HSCT patients with HCMV infection.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.