Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) and Kupffer cells play an important role in the immune control of hepatitis B virus (HBV), but may also induce liver injury during infection. We investigated the intrahepatic immune response in liver biopsies of chronic HBV patients in relation to inflammatory liver injury and viral control. Forty-seven liver biopsies from patients with chronic HBV with varying degrees of inflammation (ALT values) were selected. Acute hepatitis and normal liver specimens served as controls. Immune effector cells, cytotoxic effector molecules and cytokine producing cells were quantified after immunohistochemical staining in lobular and portal areas of the biopsies. The intralobular number of CD8+ T-lymphocytes was significantly decreased in biopsies of patients with high ALT (r = -0.54; P < 0.001). Higher ALT-values were correlated with increased numbers of granzyme+ cells in portal areas (r = 0.65; P < 0.001) and higher numbers of intralobular Fas-L+ cells (r = 0.32; P = 0.05). Fas-L was expressed on Kupffer and lymphoid cells. More intralobular CD8+ T-lymphocytes were found in HBeAg- than in HBeAg+ patients (P = 0.002). But IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha producing cells were observed sporadically in chronic HBV patients. Hence, in chronic HBV infection, low viral replication and HBeAg negativity is related to increased presence of intralobular CD8+ T-lymphocytes. Persistence of the virus may be caused by the absence of cells producing anti-viral cytokines in the liver. Inflammatory liver injury during chronic HBV infection is probably not the result of increased numbers of infiltrating CD8+ T-lymphocytes, but of Fas-L expression by Kupffer cells and increased cytolytic activity of cells in portal areas.