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Tracking the public health hazard of foodborne Hepatitis E

Group and collaboration

Collaboration: Dr. Eelco Franz (RIVM), Prof. Dr. Wim H. M. van der Poel (Wageningen Bioveterinary Research), Prof. Dr. Hans Zaaijer (Sanquin Blood Products), Dr. Nicole Pavio (ANSES, France)

PhD student: Renate W. Hakze van der Honing, Wageningen University & Research

Project description

Hepatitis E virus (HEV) genotype 3 is a zoonotic virus responsible for acute hepatitis E in humans in Western countries. HEVgt3 is widespread in a number of animal species, but the main route of HEV transmission in Europe is through consumption of contaminated pork. Molecular analyses showed that HEVgt3 strains detected in pigs and humans in the same geographical region present high genetic identity, indicating that swine are the main source of infection for humans. Recent studies have suggested an increase of hepatitis E across Europe. Furthermore, severe chronic cases of hepatitis are reported in immunocompromised patients and solid organ transplant patients, potentially leading to liver cirrhosis and death. In this PhD project we will characterise HEV variants to explain the predominance of certain HEV variants and to elucidate differences in virulence. We will try to identify virulence factors in HEV strains detected in clinical HEV patients, in the general population and in domestic swine. HEV has a very high genetic diversity and its classification into genotypes, clades or subtypes can best be done by whole genome sequencing of the virus. So far, to obtain the whole genome sequence a high concentration of HEV is needed. In this project a procedure will be set up to identify whole genome sequences from a different origin and a variety of concentrations.


  • Develop a sample processing protocol for HEV RNA positive target samples of different origin and associated deep sequencing procedure for HEV from these samples.
  • Identify virulence genes and elucidation of the relationship between quasispecies and changing virulence of circulating HEV strains.
  • Study the HEV dynamics including data on the geographical origin of predominant virulent strains and identification of genetic traits changed over time.
  • Explain HEV strain shifts and HEV disease outcomes related to HEV circulation and HEV variability.

The One Health European Joint Program (EJP) started on 1 January 2018. By integrating and coordinating the research programs of institutes working in the areas of public health, animal health and food safety, a sustainable European partnership is set up. A number of Dutch institutes also play a role within this program. Both RIVM, WBVR and the partners within Netherlands Centre for One Health participate in various research projects and activities aimed at knowledge integration.


PhD student interview

Interview: Technician turns PhD student: “Now I am more focused on one subject”

By mapping out genetic information in a family tree Renate Hakse van der Honing will show similarities and differences between Hepatitis E virus subtypes that may be responsible for a more dangerous variant.