The occurrence and pathogenetic role of intrahepatic deposits of immunoglobulins in experimental viral infection have been evaluated by determining with immunofluorescence their capacity to fix complement in vitro [in vitro complement fixation (VCF)]. Liver biopsies from chimpanzees chronically or acutely infected with hepatitis B virus or the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg)-associated δ agent were used in the study. VCF was observed in each animal expressing hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg) or δ antigen in the liver and concurrently circulating the homologous antibody in the blood. In acutely infected animals, VCF appeared at the same time that the homologous serum antibody appeared, and the intensity of VCF staining was proportional to the antibody titer in the serum. In animals expressing sequentially the HBcAg/antibody system and then δ antigen and antibody to δ, VCF was first observed in HBcAg-containing nuclei and then in nuclei expressing δ antigen. There was no relationship between VCF and intrahepatic expression of HBsAg or serologic expression of hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg).
A positive VCF reaction appears related to the formation of intrahepatic immune complexes between HBcAg or δ antigen and the homologous antibody. Although acute hepatitis developed in parallel with the occurrence of VCF in two animals, strong VCF fluorescence was also observed in each of the asymptomatic carriers of HBsAg, and, in one of them, preexisting VCF staining of HBcAg disappeared in parallel with development of acute hepatitis.
In experimentally infected chimpanzees, the finding in liver biopsies of immune complexes detectable by VCF appears to be a common epiphenomenon without pathogenic significance.