HBV-specific T-cell responses in healthy seronegative sexual partners of patients with chronic HBV infection


Prof. Dr med. Hans L. Tillmann, Duke Clinical Research Institute, Duke University, 2400 Pratt Street, Durham, NC, 27705, USA. E-mail: hans.tillmann@duke.edu


Summary.  The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is frequently transmitted by sexual intercourse. Thus, HBV-guidelines recommend vaccination. However, we have identified healthy hepatitis B surface antigen and anti-HBc-negative unvaccinated sexual partners of patients with chronic hepatitis B. We investigated whether HBV-specific cellular immune responses were present that could explain the apparent protection against HBV infection. In six anti-HBc-negative HBV-exposed sexual partners, HBV-specific T-cell responses were studied by proliferation assay and cytometric bead array after stimulation with 74 overlapping peptides spanning the HBV core, pre-S and S-encoding regions. Eleven HBV-unexposed individuals served as negative controls. HBV-DNA was undetectable in serum and peripheral blood mononuclear cells in all cases. HBV-specific cytokine secretion was observed in 4/6 seronegative partners, but only in 1/11 controls. Proliferative responses were detectable in 5/6 partners and 0/11 controls. HBV-specific cytokine secretion exists in healthy seronegative virus-exposed individuals. HBV core-directed immune responses indicate past, but controlled viral replication. T-cell immunity may prevent clinical manifestation of HBV infection in the absence of humoral immunity.