To evaluate the relative immunogenicity of and the mechanism for production of antibody to hepatitis B core (HBc) and hepatitis B e (HBe) Ag, we investigated the in vitro anti-HBc and anti-HBe production by PBMC from 25 patients with chronic active hepatitis (CAH) (15 with HBeAg and 10 with anti-HBe) and 12 ASC (5 with HBeAg and 7 with anti-HBe) in the presence of PWM, rHBcAg, or purified HBeAg. PWM-stimulated culture produced higher titer anti-HBc (mean % inhibition +/- SD = 73 +/- 23%, p less than 0.001) than anti-HBe (34 +/- 17%). HBcAg stimulation elicited greater anti-HBc response (43 +/- 26%, p less than 0.001) than did HBeAg for anti-HBe (26 +/- 12%). Both HBcAg and HBeAg induced equivalent anti-HBe response. Anti-HBc production in response to HBcAg was higher in CAH patients (51 to 55%) than in asymptomatic carriers of hepatitis B surface Ag (22 to 28%) irrespective of their HBeAg/anti-HBe status, but reflecting serum anti-HBc value. Similar findings were noted in HBeAg-stimulated anti-HBe production for the two patient groups. In HBeAg- and anti-HBe-positive CAH, HBcAG-stimulated anti-HBc production was similar in T (1.4 x 10(6)) and B (0.6 x 10(6)) cells coculture, and B cells (2 x 10(6)) alone culture. However, in the HBeAg-stimulated culture, T plus B cells produced significantly higher titer anti-HBe than B cells alone did. These results indicate that HBcAg has a relatively higher immunogenicity in terms of antibody production as compared to HBeAg. Furthermore, HBcAg was shown to function as a T cell-dependent and -independent Ag, whereas HBeAg is T cell-dependent during chronic hepatitis virus B infection in man.

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