AIM: Development of a specific polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay for detection of the pre-core, stop codon, mutant of hepatitis B virus (HBV). METHODS: PCR primers, specific at the 3'-end for nucleotide 1896 of either the pre-core, stop codon, mutant or wild type HBV, were synthesised using published sequence data. Positive control templates for both types of virus were synthesised by the PCR, incorporating sequences specific for each virus type at the appropriate position. These templates were used to optimise the specificity of the procedure. Formalin fixed, paraffin wax embedded human tissue from acute or fulminant HBV hepatitis from Hong Kong or Oxford was then investigated for presence of mutant or wild type virus. The HBV DNA was amplified from this tissue using a two step procedure, with an initial amplification phase followed by a second diagnostic phase on optimally diluted target DNA. RESULTS: Specific detection of mutant or wild type HBV was achieved. An important factor in determining specificity was the temperature of annealing, 70 degrees C proving to be highly specific. To overcome the inherent variation of target copy number in clinical samples and to provide an intrinsic positive control, it was important to generate and standardise the amount of target HBV used for the specific PCR. Two cases of fulminant hepatitis and four cases of acute hepatitis from Hong Kong, and one case of fulminant hepatitis from Oxford, contained only wild type HBV, with no evidence of a mutant virus. CONCLUSION: This method can be applied to FFPE tissues. It is rapid, non-radioactive, and specific for the stop codon mutation at nucleotide 1896 of HBV. Preliminary investigation of a small number of cases of fulminant hepatitis from Oxford and Hong Kong showed only wild type virus. The result differs from results published from Japan and Israel.