Background & aims: Impaired T-cell reactivity is believed to be the dominant cause of chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. We characterized HBV-specific T-cell responses in chronic hepatitis B surface antigen carriers who received bone marrow from HLA-identical donors with natural immunity to HBV and seroconverted to antibody to hepatitis B surface antigen.
Methods: T-cell reactivity to HBV antigens and peptides was assessed in a proliferation assay, the frequency of HBV core- and surface-specific T cells was quantified directly by ELISPOT assays, and T-cell subsets were analyzed by flow cytometry.
Results: CD4+ T-cell reactivity to HBV core was common in bone marrow donors and the corresponding recipients after hepatitis B surface antigen clearance, whereas none reacted to surface, pre-S1, or pre-S2 antigens. Furthermore, CD4+ T cells from donor/recipient pairs recognized similar epitopes on hepatitis B core antigen; using polymerase chain reaction for the Y chromosome, the recipients' CD4+ T lymphocytes were confirmed to be of donor origin. The frequency of core-specific CD4+ and CD8+ T cells was several-fold higher than those specific for surface antigen.
Conclusions: This study provides the first evidence in humans that transfer of hepatitis B core antigen-reactive T cells is associated with resolution of chronic HBV infection. Therapeutic immunization with HBV core gene or protein deserves further investigation in patients with chronic hepatitis B.