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J Mol Biol. 2010 May 14;398(4):530-41. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2010.03.026. Epub 2010 Mar 20.

Molecular basis for the high degree of antigenic cross-reactivity between hepatitis B virus capsids (HBcAg) and dimeric capsid-related protein (HBeAg): insights into the enigmatic nature of the e-antigen.

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Protein Expression Laboratory, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


The hepatitis B virus core gene codes for two closely related antigens: a 21-kDa protein that forms dimers that assemble as multimegadalton capsids, and a 17-kDa protein that also forms dimers but that do not assemble. The proteins, respectively referred to as core antigen (HBcAg) and e-antigen (HBeAg), share a sequence of 149 residues but have different amino- and carboxy-termini. Their structural and serological relationship has long been unclear. With insights gained from recent structural studies on immune complexes of the capsids, the relationship was reassessed using recombinant forms of the antigens and a panel of monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) commonly believed to discriminate between core and e-antigen. Surface plasmon resonance (SPR) was used to measure the affinities, in contrast to previous studies that used more error-prone and less sensitive plate-type assays. Four of the six mAbs did not discriminate between core and e-antigen, nor did they discriminate between e-antigen and dimers of dissociated core antigen capsids. One mAb (3120) was specific for assembled capsids and one (e6) was specific for unassembled dimers. Epitope valency of the e-antigen was also studied, using a sandwich SPR assay where e-antigen was captured with one mAb and probed with a second. The e-antigen is often considered to be a monomeric protein on the basis of monovalent reactivity with antibody pairs specific for either an alpha or beta epitope (in a prior nomenclature for e-antigen specificity). This model, however, is incorrect, because recombinant e-antigen is a stable dimer and its apparent monovalency is due to steric blockage. This was proven by the formation of a 2:1 Fab e6-e-antigen complex. These results suggest new approaches for the isolation of the authentic e-antigen, its biological assay, and its stabilization as an immune complex for structural studies.

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