Background: Occult hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is characterized by undetectable serum HBV surface antigen (HBsAg) but detectable HBV-DNA in serum or liver.
Aims: To determine the prevalence and clinical impact of occult HBV in autoimmune liver diseases as similar data are missing.
Methods: One hundred and ninety-six sera samples from HBsAg-negative patients, including 66 autoimmune hepatitis (AIH), 93 primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) and 37 primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), were investigated for HBV-DNA using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) before treatment initiation. One hundred and three serial samples from 38 AIH patients under immunosuppression and 282 selected blood donors (HBsAg negative; antibodies to HBV-core antigen positive) were also investigated. Fourteen available paraffin-embedded AIH liver samples were also investigated for HBV-DNA by nested-PCR.
Results: Hepatitis B virus DNA was detected in the serum of 24/196 patients (12.2%) and 0/282 donors (P=0.0000). Nine patients had AIH (13.6%), eight had PBC (8.6%) and seven had PSC (18.9%) (P=0.0000 vs healthy). HBV-DNA detection in AIH livers was higher than in serum. HBV-DNA was associated neither with HBV markers nor with epidemiological, laboratory and clinical data. Serial testing of AIH patients revealed two HBV-DNA-negative patients before treatment becoming positive during treatment, while all HBV-DNA-positive patients before immunosuppression became negative.
Conclusion: Based mainly on serum HBV-DNA, we found a significant proportion of autoimmune liver disease patients with occult HBV compared with donors. However, taking into account our results in a small number of liver tissues, it should be emphasized that occult HBV could be even higher when both serum and liver specimens are investigated. Occult HBV does not seem to affect the clinical and laboratory features of the diseases, while AIH patients with occult HBV under immunosuppression do not deteriorate during follow-up.