BACKGROUND: The goal of this study is to observe changes in HBcAg-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs), natural killer (NK) and natural killer T (NKT) cells from peripheral blood and to relate such changes on viral clearance and liver injury in patients with acute hepatitis B (AHB).
METHODS:Dynamic profiles on the frequency of HLA-A0201-restricted HBcAg18-27 pentamer complex (MHC-Pentamer)-specific CTLs and lymphocyte subsets in AHB patients were analyzed in addition to liver function tests, HBV serological markers, and HBV DNA levels. ELISPOT was used to detect interferon-gamma (INF-gamma) secretion in specific CTLs stimulated with known T cell epitope peptides associated with HBV surface protein, polymerase, and core protein.
RESULTS: HBV-specific CTL frequencies in AHB patients were much higher than in patients with chronic hepatitis B (CHB) (p < 0.05). HBeAg and HBV DNA disappeared earlier in AHB patients with a high frequency of HBV-specific CTLs compared with those with a low frequency of HBV-specific CTLs (p = 0.001 and 0.024, respectively). INF-gamma spots of effector cells stimulated by Pol575-583, Env348-357, or Core18-27 epitope peptides were significantly greater in AHB patients than in CHB patients (p < 0.01). CD3+CD8+ T cell numbers in AHB patients was more than observed in the healthy control group from the first to the fourth week after admission (p = 0.008 and 0.01, respectively); the number of CD3+CD8+ T cells and frequency of HBcAg18-27-specific CTLs in AHB patients reached peak levels at the second week after admission. NK and NKT cell numbers were negatively correlated with the frequency of HBcAg-specific CTLs (r = -0.266, p = 0.05).
CONCLUSIONS: Patients with AHB possess a higher frequency of HBcAg-specific CTLs than CHB patients. The frequency of specific CTLs in AHB patients is correlated with HBeAg clearance indicating that HBV-specific CTLs play an important role in viral clearance and the self-limited process of the disease. Furthermore, NK and NKT cells are likely involved in the early, non-specific immune response to clear the virus.