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Gut. 2018 May;67(5):945-952. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2017-314904. Epub 2017 Oct 21.

High risk of hepatocellular carcinoma and death in patients with immune-tolerant-phase chronic hepatitis B.

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Health Screening and Promotion Center, Asan Medical Center, University of Ulsan College of Medicine, Seoul, Republic of Korea.
Department of Gastroenterology, Liver Center, Asan Medical Center, University of Ulsan College of Medicine, Seoul, Republic of Korea.
Department of Applied Statistics, Gachon University, Seongnam-si, Gyeonggi-do, Republic of Korea.



High serum HBV DNA levels are associated with high risks of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and cirrhosis in patients with chronic hepatitis B (CHB). Although the immune-tolerant (IT) phase is characterised by high circulating HBV DNA levels, it remains unknown whether antiviral treatment reduces risks of HCC and mortality.


This historical cohort study included HBeAg-positive patients with CHB with high HBV DNA levels (≥20 000 IU/mL) and no evidence of cirrhosis at a tertiary referral hospital in Korea from 2000 to 2013. The clinical outcomes of 413 untreated IT-phase patients with normal alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels (females, <19 IU/mL; males, <30 IU/mL) were compared with those of 1497 immune-active (IA)-phase patients (ALT ≥80 IU/mL) treated with nucleos(t)ide analogues.


The IT group was significantly younger than the IA group (mean age, 38 vs 40 years at baseline, p=0.04). The 10-year estimated cumulative incidences of HCC (12.7% vs 6.1%; p=0.001) and death/transplantation (9.7% vs 3.4%; p<0.001) were significantly higher in the IT group than the IA group. In multivariable analyses, the IT group showed a significantly higher risk of HCC (HR 2.54; 95% CI 1.54 to 4.18) and death/transplantation (HR 3.38; 95% CI 1.85 to 6.16) than the IA group, which was consistently identified through inverse probability treatment weighting, propensity score-matched and competing risks analyses.


Untreated IT-phase patients with CHB had higher risks of HCC and death/transplantation than treated IA-phase patients. Unnecessary deaths could be prevented through earlier antiviral intervention in select IT-phase patients.


antiviral therapy; chronic viral hepatitis; hepatitis B; hepatocellular carcinoma; liver transplantation

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