To clarify the significance of the X gene of hepatitis B virus, we have tested for anti-HBx in the serum and HBxAg in the liver at different stages of the natural history of hepatitis B virus infection. Sera were screened by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and positive results confirmed by immunoblot. Purified recombinant MS2 Pol-HBx fusion protein was used as target for both assays.
Among serial sera of patients with nonfulminant acute hepatitis, 24 of 64 patients (37.5%) were positive for anti-HBx. In fulminant cases, 15 of 36 patients (42%) had anti-HBx. In chronic hepatitis patients with high rates of hepatitis B virus replication, we found a significantly (p < 0.01) higher prevalence of anti-HBx, 14 of 25 patients (56%), than in those with low replication, 14 of 66 patients (21%), or among asymptomatic HBsAg carrier blood donors (20 of 126 = 16%) without detectable hepatitis B virus replication (p < 0.0001). The highest prevalence of anti-HBx was found in HBsAg carriers with cirrhosis (41 of 54 patients = 76%) and/or with hepatocellular carcinoma (18 of 33 patients = 54%).
The findings suggest that anti-HBx appears as a common and early marker of hepatitis B virus infection, transient in self-limited hepatitis but persisting with progression to chronicity. In chronic hepatitis, the prevalence of anti-HBx correlated with the intensity and duration of hepatitis B virus replication but neither with the severity of the liver disease nor with malignant transformation per se.
HBxAg was also frequently detected by immunoperoxidase staining in paraffin liver sections of 60 chronic HBsAg carriers with liver disease. Its localization overlapped that of HBcAg. A discrepancy between the detection of HBxAg in liver and that of anti-HBx in serum was observed in chronic hepatitis cases, which was not found in patients with more advanced forms of liver disease. (HEPATOLOGY 1990;12:1278–1283).