The T helper (Th) cell response to hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg) was analyzed in 76 chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) carriers with varying degrees of hepatic inflammation and HBV replication. Fifty-five patients had active viral replication, 28 with minimal histological changes and normal alanine transaminase (ALT) and 27 with active hepatic inflammation and elevated ALT. The remaining 21 chronic hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) carriers had undetectable HBV replication, minimal histological activity, and normal ALT. In addition, 34 chronic HBV carriers were studied prospectively during treatment with α-interferon. The HBcAg-specific Th cell response was evaluated by a proliferative assay using 3H-thymidine uptake and γ-interferon production by peripheral blood mononuclear cells. The proliferative response and γ-interferon production of patients with active hepatic inflammation were significantly higher than in patients with minimal histological changes and in controls. In the longitudinal analysis during α-interferon treatment, 22 of 34 patients sustained an ALT flare accompanied by a parallel, significant Th cell response, which preceded or coincided with the ALT flare. The elevation in the Th cell response and the ALT flare were followed by a significant rise in the serum immunoglobulin (Ig) M anti-HBc index. Ten of twenty-two patients with an enhanced Th cell response and an ALT flare seroconverted after α-interferon treatment. The Th cell activity in the 10 responders rapidly subsided after hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) to anti-HBe seroconversion, whereas in the 12 nonresponders it remained elevated. This study demonstrates that patients with chronic hepatitis B (CAHB) have a detectable and a significant Th cell response to HBcAg, which is likely to be involved in augmenting the immune-mediated hepatocellular damage and in the activation of HBV-specific humoral immune reaction. Thus, loss of Th cell nonresponsiveness to HBcAg is an important factor in enhancing the effector immune responses to HBV in chronic hepatitis B. (HEPATOLOGY 1995; 22:1040–1049.).
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