Prognostic and therapeutic significance of microbial cell-free DNA in plasma of people with acute decompensation of cirrhosis

Open AccessPublished:October 26, 2022DOI:


      • A non-hepatotropic viral signature was identified in individuals with AD of cirrhosis.
      • This viral signature correlated with clinical outcomes.
      • CMV reactivation might play a pathogenic role in AD and progression toward ACLF.
      • Further refinement and validation are needed to define the clinical relevance of our results.

      Background & Aims

      Although the effect of bacterial infection on cirrhosis has been well-described, the effect of non-hepatotropic virus (NHV) infection is unknown. This study evaluated the genome fragments of circulating microorganisms using metagenomic next-generation sequencing (mNGS) in individuals with acute decompensation (AD) of cirrhosis, focusing on NHVs, and related the findings to clinical outcomes.


      Plasma mNGS was performed in 129 individuals with AD of cirrhosis in the study cohort. Ten healthy volunteers and 20, 39, and 81 individuals with stable cirrhosis, severe sepsis and hematological malignancies, respectively, were enrolled as controls. Validation assays for human cytomegalovirus (CMV) reactivation were performed in a validation cohort (n = 58) and exploratory treatment was instituted.


      In the study cohort, 188 microorganisms were detected in 74.4% (96/129) of patients, including viruses (58.0%), bacteria (34.1%), fungi (7.4%) and chlamydia (0.5%). A NHV signature was identified in individuals with AD, and CMV was the most frequent NHV, which correlated with the clinical effect of empirical antibiotic treatment, progression to acute-on-chronic liver failure, and 90-day mortality. The NHV signature in individuals with acute-on-chronic liver failure was similar to that in those with sepsis and hematological malignancies. CMV was detected in 24.1% (14/58) of patients in the validation cohort. Of the 14 cases with detectable CMV by mNGS, nine were further validated by real-time PCR or pp65 antigenemia testing. Three patients with CMV reactivation received ganciclovir therapy in an exploratory manner and experienced clinical resolutions.


      The results of this study suggest that NHVs may play a pathogenic role in complicating the course of AD. Further validation is needed to define whether this should be incorporated into the routine management of individuals with AD of cirrhosis.

      Impact and implications

      A non-hepatotropic virus (NHV) signature, which was similar to that in individuals with sepsis and hematological malignancies, was identified in individuals with acute decompensation of cirrhosis. The detected viral signature had clinical correlates, including clinical efficacy of empirical antibiotic treatment, progression to acute-on-chronic liver failure and short-term mortality. Cytomegalovirus reactivation, which is treatable, may adversely affect clinical outcomes in some individuals with decompensated cirrhosis. Routine screening for NHVs, especially cytomegalovirus, may be useful for the management of individuals with acute decompensation of cirrhosis.

      Graphical abstract


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