Background and methods: The role of hepatitis B virus (HBV) in the course of patients with primary liver cancer who are negative for hepatitis B surface antigen has been debated. We used the polymerase chain reaction to evaluate 28 such patients for the presence of DNA and RNA sequences of the virus; 22 of these patients had associated cirrhosis. The patients were from areas with different prevalences of HBV infection (South Africa, Italy, France, and Japan).
Results: Antibodies to the surface and core antigens of HBV were detected in 10 of the 23 patients tested. HBV DNA sequences were detected in 17 of the 28 patients, including 8 of the 10 with HBV antibodies and 6 of 13 without HBV serologic markers. HBV RNA molecules were found in four of five tumors tested.
Conclusions: Our investigation indicates that transcriptionally active HBV genomes are present in various geographic areas among patients with liver cancer who are negative for hepatitis B surface antigen. This observation is consistent with an etiologic role for the virus in the development of these tumors.