Functional analysis of hepatitis B virus reactivating in hepatitis B surface antigen-negative individuals


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.


The biological properties of latent or occult hepatitis B virus (HBV) have been poorly characterized as a result of the extremely low virus concentration. This report describes the phenotype of HBV reactivating in two patients after an HBsAg-negative latency period. One patient had latent HBV infection for at least 12 years without detectable viremia and symptoms of liver disease. Several full-length HBV genomes were cloned at reactivation, sequenced, and functionally tested by transfection into HuH7 cells. Genomes from both patients showed a low replication phenotype. It was caused at the level of RNA encapsidation or HBV DNA synthesis, but was not attributable to uncommon mutations in the terminal protein domain of P protein. A substantial subpopulation (≈50%) of genomes from one patient did not express pre-S2/S mRNA and HBsAg. Site-directed mutagenesis identified a single G-A mutation within the S gene (position 458) to be responsible for this effect. The G458A mutation was also effective if the S gene was placed under control of a heterologous promoter. Furthermore, nuclear run-on transcription showed that the G458A mutation acts at the posttranscriptional level. The mutation affected a 5′ splice site and prevented splicing of the pre-S2/S mRNA from position 458 to 1305. In conclusion, HBV latency may be characterized by viruses with reduced replication competence and antigen expression. In one patient, HBsAg expression was terminated by an as yet undescribed posttranscriptional mechanism. A single mutation inactivated a 5′ splice site that is obviously essential for pre-S2/S mRNA accumulation. Supplementary material for this article can be found on the HEPATOLOGY website ( (HEPATOLOGY 2005;42:93–103.)