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Semin Immunopathol. 2013 Jan;35(1):39-52. doi: 10.1007/s00281-012-0327-7. Epub 2012 Jul 26.

Occult HBV infection.

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Unit of Clinical and Molecular Hepatology, Department of Internal Medicine, University Hospital of Messina, Messina, Italy.


The long-lasting persistence of hepatitis B virus (HBV) genomes in the liver (with detectable or undetectable HBV DNA in the serum) of individuals testing negative for the HBV surface antigen (HBsAg) is termed occult HBV infection (OBI). Although in a minority of cases the lack of HBsAg detection is due to infection with variant viruses unrecognized by available assays (S-escape mutants), the typical OBI is related to replication-competent HBVs strongly suppressed in their replication activity. The causes of HBV suppression are not yet well clarified, although the host's immune surveillance and epigenetic mechanisms are likely involved. OBI is a worldwide diffused entity, but the available data of prevalence in various categories of individuals are often contrasting because of the different sensitivity and specificity of the methods used for its detection in many studies. OBI may have an impact in several different clinical contexts. In fact, it can be transmitted (i.e., through blood transfusion and liver transplantation) causing classic forms of hepatitis B in newly infected individuals. The development of an immunosuppressive status (mainly by immunotherapy or chemotherapy) may induce OBI reactivation and development of acute and often severe hepatitis. Finally, evidence suggests that OBI can favor the progression of liver fibrosis, in particular in HCV-infected patients. The possible contribution of OBI to the establishment of cirrhosis also implies its possible indirect role in the development of hepatocellular carcinoma. On the other hand, OBI may maintain most of the direct transforming properties of the overt HBV infection, such as the capacity to integrate in the host's genome and to synthesize pro-oncogenic proteins.

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