Fulminant and severe viral hepatitis are frequently associated with mutant hepatitis B virus (HBV) strains. In this study, the genetic background of a viral strain causing severe subfulminant outcome in heart-transplanted patients was studied and compared with viral hepatitis B strains that were not linked to severe liver disease in the same setting. A total of 46 patients infected nosocomially with HBV genotype A were studied. Five different viral strains were detected, infecting 3, 9, 5, 24, and 5 patients, respectively. Only one viral strain was found to be associated with the subfulminant outcome and 3 patient deaths as a consequence of severe liver disease. The remaining 43 patients with posttransplantation HBV infection did not show this fatal outcome. Instead, symptoms of hepatitis were generally mild or clinically undiagnosed. Comparison of this virus genome with the four other strains showed an accumulation of mutations in the basic core promoter, a region that influences viral replication, but also in hepatitis B X protein (HBX) (7 mutant motifs), core (10 mutant motifs), the preS1 region (5 mutant motifs), and the HBpolymerase open reading frame (17 motifs). Some of these variations, such as those in the core region, were located on the tip of the protruding spike of the viral capsid (codons 60 to 90), also known in part as an important HLA class II–restricted epitope region. These mutations might therefore influence the immune-mediated response. The viral strain causing subfulminant hepatitis was, in addition, the only strain with a preCore stop codon mutation and, thus, hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) expression was never observed. The combination of these specific viral factors is thought to be responsible for the fatal outcome in these immune-suppressed heart-transplant recipients.
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