In chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection seroconversion from hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) to hepatitis B e antibody (HBeAb) may be followed either by remission of the disease with low-level viraemia, or by continuing inflammation with high-level viraemia. In both situations the virus may acquire a mutation in the precore sequence which prevents it from encoding HBeAg. We now show that the number of amino acid substitutions in the HBV core is low in viral sequences from patients with HBeAg positive chronic liver disease and HBeAg negative HBeAb positive patients in remission, but the frequency of substitutions is high in HBeAg, negative HBeAb positive patients with active liver disease. Furthermore we show that these substitutions cluster in the promiscuous CD4+ T-helper-cell epitope and in HBV core/e antibody binding determinants, but are not found in regions recognized by major histocompatability complex (MHC) restricted cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Sequential viral sequences from patients before and after HBeAg/HbeAb seroconversion shows that core mutations arise either at the same time or after the precore stop mutation which prevents the virus from encoding HBeAg. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that after clearance of HBeAg, mutations in regions of the virus recognized by CD4+ helper T cells and B cells allow persistence of the HBe negative virus in HBeAb positive patients with viraemia and active hepatitis.
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