The expression of hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg) in serum and in hepatocytes was evaluated in relation to HBV replication. Fifty chronic HBsAg carriers with histological evidence of liver disease were studied, including 24 HBeAg-positive patients, 2 HBeAg/anti-HBe-negative patients, and 24 anti-HBe-positive cases, two of them with evidence of delta agent infection. Serum HBV-DNA was evaluated in all patients and related to HBcAg examined at the same time in frozen liver biopsies by immunofluorescence and to HBcAg detected in the corresponding serum by a recently developed radioimmunoassay.
HBV-DNA was present in serum in 20 (83%) HBeAg-positive patients, all positive for serum HBcAg, whereas liver core antigen was detected in 14 (73%) of 19 cases. Among HBeAg-negative patients, 50% showed the presence of circulating DNA viral sequences, and HBcAg was identified in five of 26 (19%) cases in serum and in six of 24 (25%) in the liver respectively. In 15 patients, liver fragments permitted examination in parallel by immunofluorescence for HBcAg and molecular hybridization for viral DNA in liver cells. A DNA pattern characteristic of viral replication was found in cases with evidence of active virion production, independently from HBeAg and anti-HBe, and in these patients HBcAg was present both in serum and in hepatocytes. In two cases with free HBV-DNA, without evidence of replicative activity, core antigen was not detected in the liver, but in one patient HBcAg was found in the serum. A similar finding was also noted in another patient, in whom the hybridization pattern was consistent with integration of viral genome into high-molecular-weight cellular DNA. Whether serum HBcAg detected in these patients without HBV-DNA in serum reflects the presence of defective viral particles or of core antigen released as a viral protein remains to be determined.