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. 2019 Apr;70(4):615-625.
doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2018.11.030. Epub 2018 Dec 7.

Serum Hepatitis B Core-Related Antigen (HBcrAg) Correlates With Covalently Closed Circular DNA Transcriptional Activity in Chronic Hepatitis B Patients

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Serum Hepatitis B Core-Related Antigen (HBcrAg) Correlates With Covalently Closed Circular DNA Transcriptional Activity in Chronic Hepatitis B Patients

Barbara Testoni et al. J Hepatol. .

Abstract

Background & aims: It has been proposed that serum hepatitis B core-related antigen (HBcrAg) reflects intrahepatic covalently closed circular (ccc)DNA levels. However, the correlation of HBcrAg with serum and intrahepatic viral markers and liver histology has not been comprehensively investigated in a large sample. We aimed to determine if HBcrAg could be a useful therapeutic marker in patients with chronic hepatitis B.

Methods: HBcrAg was measured by chemiluminescent enzyme immunoassay in 130 (36 hepatitis B e antigen [HBeAg]+ and 94 HBeAg-) biopsy proven, untreated, patients with chronic hepatitis B. HBcrAg levels were correlated with: a) serum hepatitis B virus (HBV)-DNA, quantitative hepatitis B surface antigen and alanine aminotransferase levels; b) intrahepatic total (t)HBV-DNA, cccDNA, pregenomic (pg)RNA and cccDNA transcriptional activity (defined as pgRNA/cccDNA ratio); c) fibrosis and necroinflammatory activity scores.

Results: HBcrAg levels were significantly higher in HBeAg+ vs. HBeAg- patients and correlated with serum HBV-DNA, intrahepatic tHBV-DNA, pgRNA and cccDNA levels, and transcriptional activity. Patients who were negative for HBcrAg (<3 LogU/ml) had less liver cccDNA and lower cccDNA activity than the HBcrAg+ group. Principal component analysis coupled with unsupervised clustering identified that in a subgroup of HBeAg- patients, higher HBcrAg levels were associated with higher serum HBV-DNA, intrahepatic tHBV-DNA, pgRNA, cccDNA transcriptional activity and with higher fibrosis and necroinflammatory activity scores.

Conclusions: Our results indicate that HBcrAg is a surrogate marker of both intrahepatic cccDNA and its transcriptional activity. HBcrAg could be useful in the evaluation of new antiviral therapies aiming at a functional cure of HBV infection either by directly or indirectly targeting the intrahepatic cccDNA pool.

Lay summary: Hepatitis B virus causes a chronic infection which develops into severe liver disease and liver cancer. The viral covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) is responsible for the persistence of the infection in hepatocytes. To better manage patient treatment and follow-up, and to develop new antiviral treatments directly targeting the intrahepatic pool of cccDNA, serum surrogate markers reflecting the viral activity in the liver are urgently needed. In this work, we demonstrate that quantification of hepatitis B core-related antigen in serum correlates with cccDNA amount and activity and could be used to monitor disease progression.

Keywords: Biomarker; Chronic hepatitis B (CHB); Covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA); Hepatitis B virus (HBV); Patient management; Pregenomic RNA (pgRNA).

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