Background: The presence of the hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) in serum is known to be a marker of a high degree of viral infectivity. However, fulminant hepatitis may occur in persons who are negative for HBeAg. A single point mutation has been reported to produce a stop codon in the precore region of hepatitis B virus DNA and prevent the formation of the precore protein required to make HBeAg. To determine whether a precore-mutant virus is causally related to severe liver injury, we analyzed the entire precore region in viral strains isolated from patients with fatal cases and uncomplicated cases of hepatitis B.
Methods: Serum was obtained from 9 patients with fatal hepatitis B (5 with fulminant and 4 with severe exacerbations of chronic hepatitis) and 10 patients with acute, self-limited hepatitis B. Serum samples from a sex partner implicated as the source of the virus in one case of fulminant hepatitis were also studied. The 87 nucleotides in the precore region of the hepatitis B virus were amplified by the polymerase chain reaction and then directly sequenced.
Results: Of the nine patients with fatal hepatitis, seven had retrievable hepatitis B DNA: In all seven there was a point mutation from G to A at nucleotide 1896 of the precore region, converting tryptophan (TGG) to a stop codon (TAG). In contrast, this mutation was not found in the 10 patients with acute, self-limited hepatitis B. The hepatitis B DNA from the implicated source contained a sequence with the stop-codon mutation that was identical to the sequence in her partner, who had fulminant hepatitis.
Conclusions: The presence of a mutant viral strain is associated with and may be involved in the pathogenesis of fulminant hepatitis B and severe exacerbations of chronic hepatitis B.