Hepatitis B virus X protein (HBx) is a multifunctional protein that exerts its effects primarily by acting as a transcriptional transactivator of viral and multiple host cell genes. HBx is thought to be essential for maintaining viral replication and has been implicated in the development of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients chronically infected with hepatitis B virus. Very little is known about its functional mechanisms and although interactions with several nuclear and cytoplasmic proteins have been demonstrated in vitro, there is no clear consensus as to where HBx localises in infected hepatocytes. In this study, the expression and intracellular distribution of HBx were examined in human liver biopsies using an anti-HBx rabbit polyclonal antiserum. HBx was detected in a high proportion (69%) of samples from patients with chronic HBV infection. Detection of HBx correlated with the absence of cirrhosis and the presence of serum e-antigen. HBx was detected predominantly in the cytoplasm; however, it was also found in the nuclei of up to 20% of positively stained hepatocytes, either exclusively nuclear or localised both in the nucleus and cytoplasm within the same cell. Furthermore, the intracellular distribution of HBx was analysed in transfected Huh-7 cells by confocal microscopy, using the monoclonal antibody 16F1. In these experiments, a substantial nuclear detection was confirmed in a significant proportion of HBx expressing cells. The data indicate a high functional significance of nuclear HBx, consistent with the concept that transactivation may involve interactions with nuclear proteins.
Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.