Background: Serum hepatitis B virus (HBV) RNA may reflect intrahepatic HBV replication. Novel anti-viral drugs have shown potent HBV RNA decline without concomitant hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) decrease. How this relates to off-treatment response is yet unclear.
Aim: To study the degree of on-treatment viral antigen decline among patients with pronounced HBV RNA decrease in relation to off-treatment sustained response and HBsAg loss.
Methods: HBV RNA, HBsAg and hepatitis B core-related antigen (HBcrAg) were quantified in patients with chronic hepatitis B who participated in two randomised controlled trials of peginterferon-based therapy. Sustained response (HBV DNA <2000 IU/mL) and/or HBsAg loss were assessed in patients with and without on-treatment HBV RNA response (either >2 log HBV RNA decline or >1 log decline resulting in an undetectable value at on-treatment week 24), stratified by concomitant HBsAg decline (<0.5/0.5-1/>1 log).
Results: We enrolled 279 patients; 176 were hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg)-positive, and 103 were HBeAg-negative. Sustained response was achieved in 20.4% of patients. At on-treatment week 24, HBV RNA response was associated with higher sustained response rates (27.4% vs 13.0% in non-responders, P = 0.004). However, among patients with an HBV RNA response (n = 135), 56.4% did not experience >0.5 log HBsAg decline. Among HBV RNA responders, sustained response was achieved in 47.6% of those with >1 log HBsAg decline (n = 20/42), vs 16.0% with <0.5 log decline (n = 12/75, P = 0.001). Similar results were obtained with HBcrAg and when response was defined as HBsAg loss.
Conclusions: In this cohort, many patients with HBV RNA response during peginterferon-based treatment did not experience HBsAg and/or HBcrAg decline. The absence of concomitant decline in these viral antigens was associated with low rates of treatment response and HBsAg loss. Future trials should therefore consider kinetics of combined biomarkers to assess anti-viral efficacy. Trial registration, ClinicalTrials.gov: NCT00114361, NCT00146705.
© 2020 The Authors. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.