Quantitation of HBV cccDNA in anti-HBc-positive liver donors by droplet digital PCR: A new tool to detect occult infection

J Hepatol. 2018 Aug;69(2):301-307. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2018.03.021. Epub 2018 Apr 3.


Background & aims: The accurate diagnosis of occult hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection (OBI) requires the demonstration of HBV DNA in liver biopsies of hepatitis B surface antigen-negative individuals. However, in clinical practice a latent OBI is deduced by the finding of the antibody to the hepatitis B core antigen (anti-HBc). We investigated the true prevalence of OBI and the molecular features of intrahepatic HBV in anti-HBc-positive individuals.

Methods: The livers of 100 transplant donors (median age 68.2 years; 64 males, 36 females) positive for anti-HBc at standard serologic testing, were examined for total HBV DNA by nested-PCR and for the HBV covalently closed circular DNA (HBV cccDNA) with an in-house droplet digital PCR assay (ddPCR) (Linearity: R2 = 0.9998; lower limit of quantitation and detection of 2.4 and 0.8 copies/105 cells, respectively).

Results: A total of 52% (52/100) of the individuals studied were found to have OBI. cccDNA was found in 52% (27/52) of the OBI-positive, with a median 13 copies/105 cells (95% CI 5-25). Using an assay specific for anti-HBc of IgG class, the median antibody level was significantly higher in HBV cccDNA-positive than negative donors (17.0 [7.0-39.2] vs. 5.7 [3.6-9.7] cut-off index [COI], respectively, p = 0.007). By multivariate analysis, an anti-HBc IgG value above 4.4 COI was associated with the finding of intrahepatic HBV cccDNA (odds ratio 8.516, p = 0.009); a lower value ruled out its presence with a negative predictive value of 94.6%.

Conclusions: With a new in-house ddPCR-based method, intrahepatic HBV cccDNA was detectable in quantifiable levels in about half of the OBI cases examined. The titer of anti-HBc IgG may be a useful surrogate to predict the risk of OBI reactivation in immunosuppressed patients.

Lay summary: The covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) form of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) sustains the persistence of the virus even decades after resolution of the symptomatic infection (occult HBV infection). In the present study we developed a highly sensitive method based on droplet digital PCR technology for the detection and quantitation of HBV cccDNA in the liver of individuals with occult HBV infection. We observed that the amount of HBV cccDNA may be inferred from the titer in serum of the IgG class antibody to the hepatitis B core antigen. The quantitation of this antibody may represent a surrogate to determine which patients are at the highest risk of HBV reactivation following immunosuppressive therapies.

Keywords: Anti-HBc; Digital droplet PCR; HBcrAg; Hepatitis B virus; Occult HBV infection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • DNA, Circular / analysis
  • DNA, Viral / analysis*
  • Female
  • Hepatitis B / diagnosis*
  • Hepatitis B Antibodies / blood*
  • Hepatitis B Core Antigens / immunology*
  • Hepatitis B virus* / genetics
  • Hepatitis B virus* / isolation & purification
  • Hepatitis B, Chronic* / immunology
  • Hepatitis B, Chronic* / virology
  • Humans
  • Liver / virology*
  • Liver Transplantation / methods*
  • Male
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Tissue Donors


  • DNA, Circular
  • DNA, Viral
  • Hepatitis B Antibodies
  • Hepatitis B Core Antigens