Although Korea is one of the endemic areas of hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, the prevalence of naturally occurring variants in the major hydrophilic region (MHR) of the surface (S) gene of HBV has not been determined. In the present study, the prevalence of these variants was examined in terms of the clinical state, and HBeAg serostatus in a large series of Korean patients with chronic HBV infection by direct sequencing analysis of part of the S gene containing the MHR of HBV isolated from 101 chronic HBV patients (51 HBeAg-positive and 50 HBeAg-negative): 37 were asymptomatic carriers, 21 had chronic hepatitis, 20 had liver cirrhosis, and 23 had hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Forty-seven MHR variants (46.5%) of the 101 patients were detected, involving a total of 59 amino acid substitutions at 12 positions inside and 14 position outside the 'a' determinant, and 33 'a' determinant variants (32.7%). A total of 17 novel variants and 14 novel mutation patterns were detected. The prevalence of MHR variants in HBeAg-negative patients tended to be higher than in HBeAg-positive patients (54.0% vs.39.2%) and the prevalence of MHR variants in HCC and liver cirrhosis tended to be higher than in asymptomatic carriers (65.2% vs. 40.5% and 50.0% vs. 40.5%, respectively). In conclusion, three important findings were found in the present study. First, an unexpectedly high prevalence of naturally occurring MHR variants was found in Korean chronic patients. Second, several novel variants associated with mutations outside the 'a' determinant were detected. Finally, a higher prevalence of MHR variants was associated with HBeAg-negative serostatus and severe liver disease, particularly HCC.
Copyright 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.