There is evidence that both cellular and humoral components of the immune response are required for viral clearance to occur in chronic hepatitis B. Recent studies demonstrated that CD30 molecule, a member of the tumour necrosis factor superfamily of membrane cytokine receptors, is expressed on, and released as a soluble molecule (sCD30) by activated T cells producing T helper 2 (Th2) cytokines, which modulate antibody responses. To better characterize the immunoregulatory mechanisms in chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, sCD30 values were evaluated by an ELISA in 90 hepatitis B surface (HBsAg)-positive patients with chronic hepatitis, selected on the basis of active viral replication and biochemical activity. At presentation abnormal levels (> 20 U/ml) of sCD30 were detected in 57 (63%) out of 90 patients with chronic hepatitis B, and median value was significantly higher in this group of patients compared with that of healthy HBsAg carriers (26.7 versus 10.5 U/ml, P < 0.000 05) and with normal controls (26.7 versus 3 U/ml P < 0.000 01). Sequential studies of chronic hepatitis B did confirm the association of raised sCD30 levels with the active phase of the illness. On the other hand, a significant decrease was noted when sCD30 levels at diagnosis and after termination of HBV replication and biochemical remission of hepatitis were compared in 10 untreated patients (median, 28 U/ml at entry versus 8 U/ml at remission, P < 0.01) and in six patients responding to interferon-alpha therapy (median, 29.5 U/ml at entry versus 6 U/ml at remission, P < 0.05). The high serum sCD30 levels reported during the active phase of HBsAg-positive chronic hepatitis suggest a certain degree of immune competence of these patients, at least with respect to a Th2-type response. These data are in agreement with recent serologic surveys showing that most chronic hepatitis B patients do demonstrate ongoing humoral immune response to HBV antigens, using novel immunoassays designed to detect antibody in the presence of excess serum viral antigen. Th2 functions that mainly promote humoral immunity to HBV antigens may be critical, in association with a competent virus-specific cytotoxicity, for efficient termination of HBV replication in chronic hepatitis B.