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Abstract

Hepatitis B virus carriers in Israel are mostly HBeAg negative, of whom 5% to 10% have circulating hepatitis B virus. Recently, a hepatitis B virus variant with a stop codon in the precore region was identified, and it was suggested that specific mutations are associated with fulminant or severe chronic active hepatitis. We have analyzed serum samples from HBeAg-positive and HBeAg-negative patients by polymerase chain reaction, using primers spanning the precore/core region. Nucleotide sequence analysis (by direct sequencing) from amplified hepatitis B virus DNA demonstrated that viral genomes from all HBeAg-negative patients contain G to A mutation (nucleotide 1896), leading to the formation of a stop codon. An additional G to A mutation was identified three nucleotides downstream (nucleotide 1899). These patients are of various ethnic origins, with no unique clinical characteristics and with normal liver histology, chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis. No mutation at the precore/core region was observed in the HBeAg-positive patients. In conclusion, the precore mutations identified in hepatitis B virus carriers in Israel are identical regardless of the carrier's ethnic origin and are associated with mild-to-severe liver disease.