Diagnosis and management of pre-core mutant chronic hepatitis B

Authors


Professor Stephanos J. Hadziyannis, Academic Department of Medicine, Hippokration General Hospital, 114 Vas. Sophias Avenue, 115 27 Athens, Greece. E-mail: hadziyannis@ath.forthnet.gr

Abstract

Chronic hepatitis due to pre-core hepatitis B virus (HBV) mutants presents as hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg)-negative chronic hepatitis B (CHB). HBeAg-negative CHB represents a late phase in the natural course of chronic HBV infection that develops after HBeAg loss and seroconversion to anti-HBe. It is usually associated with pre-core stop codon mutation at nucleotide 1896 (mainly selected in non-A HBV genotypes), but also with other pre-core changes or with mutations in the basic core promoter region (mainly in HBV genotype A). In chronic HBV infections, pre-core mutants can be detected both in patients with HBeAg-negative CHB and in inactive hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) carriers. The diagnosis of HBeAg-negative CHB is based on HBsAg positivity, HBeAg negativity, and mainly on increased alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and serum HBV-DNA levels and exclusion of other causes of liver disease. The differential diagnosis between patients with CHB and inactive HBsAg carriers can be made only by close follow-up of aminotransferase activity and viraemia levels, although the cut-off level of serum HBV DNA has not been definitely determined. IgM anti-HBc levels have also been suggested as an index that increases the diagnostic accuracy for transient hepatitis flares, while liver biopsy confirms the diagnosis and evaluates the severity of the liver disease. Interferon-α (IFN-α) and lamivudine are the two drugs that have been tried, mainly in the management of HBeAg-negative CHB. A 12-month course of IFN-α achieves sustained biochemical remission in about 20% of patients, which has been associated with improvement in the long-term outcome of this subset. A 12-month course of lamivudine is rather ineffective, maintaining remission in less than 15% of patients after cessation of therapy. Long-term lamivudine is associated with progressively increasing rate of virological and subsequent biochemical breakthroughs due to YMDD mutants, with approximately 30% of patients remaining in remission in the third year of therapy. Several other antiviral agents are currently being evaluated in this setting with combined regimens being the most reasonable step for the near future.

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