The proliferative response of PBMC to hepatitis B virus (HBV) envelope, core, and e Ag was analyzed prospectively in 21 patients with acute self-limited HBV infection and compared with the response of patients with chronic HBV infection and different levels of HBV replication (i.e., hepatitis e Ag (HBeAg)- or anti-HBe-positive) and liver damage (i.e., chronic active hepatitis or chronic asymptomatic carriers). Our results indicate that: 1) HBV-infected subjects who develop a self-limited acute hepatitis show a vigorous PBMC response to hepatitis B core Ag and HBeAg, as expression of T cell activation; 2) appearance of a detectable lymphocyte response to HBV nucleocapsid Ag is temporally associated with the clearance of HBV envelope Ag; 3) in patients with chronic HBV infection the level of T cell responsiveness to hepatitis B core Ag and to HBeAg is significantly lower than that observed during acute infection; 4) T cell sensitization to HBV envelope Ag in acute and chronic HBV infection is usually undetectable and when measurable is expressed transiently and at low levels. These results may reflect immune events of pathogenetic relevance with respect to evolution of disease and viral clearance.

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