A molecular analysis of viral persistence in surface antigen-negative chronic hepatitis B



To identify the mechanisms of viral persistence in patients with chronic hepatitis B after the acquisition of anti-hepatitis B surface antigen antibodies (antiHBs), we serially analyzed the nucleotide sequence of the envelope region in a cohort of infected patients. Four patients with histological diagnoses of chronic hepatitis B who had at least 5 years of observance by our hospital staff were studied. All but one showed normalization of serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) concentration after clearance of the hepatitis B surface of antigen (HBsAg) and the appearance of anti-HBs. Hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA was still detectable by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification assay in serum specimens from two patients, even in the presence of circulating anti-HBs. The envelope gene was amplified by PCR in serum samples obtained both before and after seroconversion, and direct cycle sequencing of the PCR products was performed. A mutation resulting in a premature stop codon was found in the pre-S1 region of one patient just prior to clearance of HBsAg. Two years later, the stop codon was converted to a leucine codon and three mutations developed in the “a” loop. In the other patient, 16 amino acids had been deleted between amino acids 8 and 23 in the pre-S2 region before clearance of HBsAg. After the appearance of circulating anti-HBs, the pre-S2 gene reverted to the wild type but three additional mutations appeared inside the “a” loop. These results suggest that HBV mutates when HBsAg is cleared, which may contribute to viral persistence due to an evasion of the host immune surveillance.