High viral and/or antigen load may be an important cause of the T cell hyporesponsiveness to hepatitis B virus (HBV) antigens that is often observed in patients with chronic HBV infection. Reduction of viral and antigen load by lamivudine treatment represents an ideal model for investigating this hypothesis. HLA class II restricted T cell responses and serum levels of HBV-DNA, HBsAg, and HBeAg were studied before and during lamivudine treatment in 12 patients with hepatitis B e antigen positive chronic active hepatitis B to assess possible correlations between viral and/or antigen load and vigor of the T cell response. Cell proliferation to HBV nucleocapsid antigens and peptides and frequency of circulating HBV nucleocapsid-specific T cells were assessed to characterize CD4-mediated responses. A highly significant enhancement of the CD4-mediated response to HBV nucleocapsid antigens was already detectable in most patients 7-14 d after the start of lamivudine treatment. This effect was dramatic and persistent in 10 patients but undetectable in 2. It occurred concomitant with a rapid and marked reduction of viremia. Interestingly, lamivudine also enhanced the responses to mitogens and recall antigens, showing that its effect was not limited to HBV-specific T cells. In conclusion, an efficient antiviral T cell response can be restored by lamivudine treatment in patients with chronic hepatitis B concurrently with reduction of viremia, indicating the importance of viral load in the pathogenesis of T cell hyporesponsiveness in these patients. Since lamivudine treatment can overcome T cell hyporeactivity, combining lamivudine with treatments directed to stimulate the T cell response may represent an effective strategy to induce eradication of chronic HBV infection.
C Boni, A Bertoletti, A Penna, A Cavalli, M Pilli, S Urbani, P Scognamiglio, R Boehme, R Panebianco, F Fiaccadori, C Ferrari