PloS one

Investigation of occult hepatitis B virus infection in anti-hbc positive patients from a liver clinic.

PMID 25763579


Occult hepatitis B infection (OBI) is manifested by presence of very low levels (<200IU/mL) of Hepatitis B viral DNA (HBV DNA) in the blood and the liver while exhibiting undetectable HBV surface antigen (HBsAg). The molecular mechanisms underlying this occurrence are still not completely understood. This study investigated the prevalence of OBI in a high-risk Australian population and compared the HBV S gene sequences of our cohort with reference sequences. Serum from HBV DNA positive, HBsAg negative, and hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc) positive patients (study cohort) were obtained from samples tested at SEALS Serology Laboratory using the Abbott Architect, as part of screening and diagnostic testing. From a total of 228,108 samples reviewed, 1,451 patients were tested for all three OBI markers. Only 10 patients (0.69%) out of the 1,451 patients were found to fit the selection criteria for OBI. Sequence analysis of the HBV S gene from 5 suspected OBI infected patients showed increased sequence variability in the 'a' epitope of the major hydrophilic region compared to reference sequences. In addition, a total of eight consistent nucleotide substitutions resulting in seven amino acid changes were observed, and three patients had truncated S gene sequence. These mutations appeared to be stable and may result in alterations in HBsAg conformation. These may negatively impact the affinity of hepatitis B surface antibody (anti-HBs) and may explain the false negative results in serological HBV diagnosis. These changes may also enable the virus to persist in the liver by evading immune surveillance. Further studies on a bigger cohort are required to determine whether these amino acid variations have been acquired in the process of immune escape and serve as markers of OBI.