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After hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, liver injury and viral control have been thought to result from lysis of infected hepatocytes by virus-specific cytotoxic T cells. Patients are usually studied only after developing significant liver injury, and so the viral and immune events during the incubation phase of disease have not been defined. During a single-source outbreak of HBV infection, we identified patients before the onset of symptomatic hepatitis. The dynamics of HBV replication, liver injury, and HBV-specific CD8+ and CD4+ cell responses were investigated from incubation to recovery. Although a rise in alanine transaminase (ALT) levels was present at the time of the initial fall in HBV-DNA levels, maximal reduction in virus level occurred before significant liver injury. Direct ex vivo quantification of HBV-specific CD4+ and CD8+ cells, by using human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I tetramers and intracellular cytokine staining, showed that adaptive immune mechanisms are present during the incubation phase, at least 4 weeks before symptoms. The results suggest that the pattern of reduction in HBV replication is not directly proportional to tissue injury during acute hepatitis B in humans. Furthermore, because virus-specific immune responses and significant reductions in viral replication are seen during the incubation phase, it is likely that the immune events central to viral control occur before symptomatic disease.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





1117 - 1124


Acute Disease, Adult, Aged, Antibody Formation, CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes, CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes, Disease Outbreaks, Female, Hepatitis B, Humans, Immunity, Cellular, Liver, Middle Aged, United Kingdom, Virus Replication