Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) are thought to contribute to viral clearance and liver cell injury during hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. Using a strategy involving the in vitro stimulation of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) with HBV-derived synthetic peptides containing HLA-A2.1, -A31, and -Aw68 binding motifs, we have previously described CTL responses to several epitopes within the HBV nucleocapsid and envelope antigens in patients with acute hepatitis. In this study we define six HLA-A2-restricted CTL epitopes located in the highly conserved reverse transcriptase and RNase H domains of the viral polymerase protein, and we show that the CTL response to polymerase is polyclonal, multispecific, and mediated by CD8+ T cells in patients with acute viral hepatitis, but that it is not detectable in patients with chronic HBV infection or uninfected healthy blood donors. Importantly, the peptide-activated CTL recognize target cells that express endogenously synthesized polymerase protein, suggesting that these peptides represent naturally processed viral epitopes. DNA sequence analysis of the viruses in patients who did not respond to peptide stimulation indicated that CTL nonresponsiveness was not due to infection by viral variants that differed in sequences from the synthetic peptides. CTL specific for one of the epitopes were unable to recognize several naturally occurring viral variants, except at high peptide concentration, underlining the HBV subtype specificity of this response. Furthermore, CTL responses against polymerase, core, and envelope epitopes were detectable for more than a year after complete clinical recovery and seroconversion, reflecting either the persistence of trace amounts of virus or the presence of long lived memory CTL in the absence of viral antigen. Finally, we demonstrated that wild type viral DNA and RNA can persist indefinitely, in trace quantities, in the serum and PBMC after complete clinical and serological recovery, despite a concomitant, vigorous, and sustained polyclonal CTL response. Since viral persistence is not due to escape from CTL recognition under these conditions, the data suggest that HBV may retreat into immunologically privileged sites from which it can seed the circulation and reach CTL-inaccessible tissues, thereby maintaining the CTL response in apparently cured individuals and, perhaps, prolonging the liver disease in patients with chronic hepatitis.

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