Selective detection of human hepatitis B virus surface and core antigens in peripheral blood mononuclear cell subsets by flow cytometry


INSERM U271, 151 Cours Albert Thomas, 69424 Lyons, Cédex 03, France.


SUMMARY. The presence of hepatitis B surface protein (HBs) and hepatitis B core protein (HBc) was investigated, by flow cytometry, on the surface of peripheral mononuclear cells (PBMC) from cells of the following phenotype: CD3 (T lymphocytes), CD4 (T helper/inducer), CD8 (T cytotoxic/suppressor). CD19 (B lymphocytes) and CD56 [natural killer (NK) cells] among eight patients suffering from chronic hepatitis B and five healthy HBV-negative subjects. This study demonstrated the presence of HBsAg and HBcAg on the lymphocyte surface for most of the patients. The mean percentage of labelled cells was 17% for HBsAg and 15% for HBcAg. Among the different lymphocyte subsets only B lymphocytes and the NK cells expressed HBsAg for 57% and 26% of cells, respectively. Similarly HBcAg was also detected among CD19 and CD56 cells only. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was used to search for the presence of hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA and RNA in PBMC, using primers located in the S gene. HBV DNA was detected with variable intensity in the CD3, CD4, CD19 and CD56 subsets following their separation with a cell sorter. For HBV RNA the signal obtained after PCR and Southern blotting was higher for CD56 and CD19 cells than for CD3 cells and undetectable for CD4 cells. This study demonstrates that replication and transcription of the HBV can occur in CD19- and CD56-positive cells. Positive signals in CD3 cells may be due to contamination of this subpopulation by NK cells.