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Keywords:

  • acute hepatitis B;
  • cellular immunity;
  • chronic hepatitis B;
  • hepatitis B surface antigen;
  • hepatitis B virus;
  • interferon γ

Summary.  The immunopathogenesis of hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) negative chronic hepatitis B (CHB) virus (HBV) infection has not been adequately investigated. We studied the cellular immune responses of peripheral lymphocytes using proliferating assays, intracellular cytokine staining (ICS) and ELISPOT interferon-γ (IFN-γ) assays after non-specific and specific stimulation with whole HBV proteins and synthetic peptides. Thirty patients with HBeAg negative CHB, eleven HBsAg inactive carriers, nine patients with acute hepatitis B and 22 healthy controls were included in the study. Patients with HBeAg negative CHB demonstrated an increased number of peripheral CD8+ T cells while their peripheral blood mononuclear cells showed increased proliferation after in vitro stimulation with overlapping hepatitis B core derived peptides and an envelope derived epitope (HBs 182–191 aa), similar to those observed in acute hepatitis B. Using ICS, we found an expanded population of IFN-γ producing T lymphocytes, CD4+ and CD8+, after non-specific stimulation, in HBeAg negative CHB compared to all other groups. HBeAg negative CHB and acute hepatitis B patients had a similarly increased number of core specific T cells measured by the IFN-γ assays. Inactive HBsAg carriers showed minimal proliferative responses overall while they exhibited an increased number of envelope specific effector T cells (measured by ICS). In conclusion, we showed that overall CD4+ T cell responses from patients with HBeAg negative CHB were comparable to those of acute hepatitis B, while inactive HBsAg carriers despite their limited proliferative capacity the effector activity of their peripheral T cells was maintained.