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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1991 May 15;88(10):4186-90.

Wild-type and e antigen-minus hepatitis B viruses and course of chronic hepatitis.

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  • 1Division of Gastroenterology, Molinette Hospital, Torino, Italy.


Using an oligonucleotide hybridization assay, we studied the clinical implication of wild-type hepatitis B virus (HBV) and a HBV mutant that is unable to secrete hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) because of a translational defect due to a stop codon in the pre-C region in 106 hepatitis B surface antigen-positive patients with chronic hepatitis B. Wild-type HBV was detected in 31 of 42 (73.8%) HBeAg-positive patients, whereas a mixed viral population was present in 10 (23.8%). Significant differences in the severity and outcome of liver disease were not observed in the two groups of patients. However, the emergence of HBeAg-minus HBV in wild-type HBV carriers was associated with an exacerbation of liver disease and was followed by the presence of antibodies against HBeAg (anti-HBe) in serum in 50% of the cases. In 61 of 64 (95.3%) anti-HBe-positive patients, HBeAg-minus HBV was the predominant virus: HBeAg-minus HBV was detected in 42 patients (65.6%), whereas both wild-type and HBeAg-minus HBV were present in 19 (29.7%). HBeAg-minus HBV was associated with a course of hepatitis characterized by flare-ups of liver cell necrosis interspersed with periods of asymptomatic HBV carriage (P less than 0.01). These data support the hypothesis that genetic heterogeneity of HBV significantly influences the course and outcome of chronic hepatitis B. Wild-type HBV secreting HBeAg induces immunologic tolerance and causes chronic infection. HBeAg-minus HBV might be unable to induce chronic infection without the helper function of wild-type HBV, but it appears to be more pathogenic. Once chronic infection is established, HBeAg-minus HBV variants may prevail and displace wild-type virus.

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