Lamivudine, a novel cytosine analogue, exhibits potent antiviral activity against hepatitis B virus (HBV) in vitro and in vivo. The standard HBV DNA hybridization assay used in phase II clinical studies has a low sensitivity, the detection limit of HBV DNA levels being ≈ 107 genome equivalents per ml (geq ml–1). In this work we used a semiquantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay (detection limit ≈ 103 geq ml–1) to determine HBV DNA levels during a 24-week study of lamivudine in 51 stable chronic hepatitis B patients who were positive for hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg). Patients were randomly allocated to receive oral doses of 25, 100 or 300 mg lamivudine once daily. At week 24 the median serum concentration of HBV DNA had fallen from 108 to 104 geq ml–1, a 4-log median reduction. A trend towards more profound suppression of viral replication with an increased dose of lamivudine was observed. After 12 weeks of therapy, 12% of patients had an HBV DNA level that was undetectable in the PCR assay; this increased to 26% after 24 weeks, while in an additional 20% of patients, HBV DNA decreased to the level of detection of the PCR assay. We conclude that a 24-week course of lamivudine decreases serum HBV DNA to the level of PCR detection in 46% of patients. Such additional viral suppressive activity with higher doses and more protracted lamivudine may be of clinical utility prior to liver transplantation. Further studies are needed to define the degree of virus suppression required in clinical practice, and methods are required to increase the efficacy of virus suppression.