AIMS: To study the intrahepatic expression of hepatitis B virus (HBV) nucleocapsid antigen; and to determine the differential distribution of hepatitis B core and E antigens in chronic hepatitis B. METHODS: Hepatocyte expression of HBV nucleocapsid antigen was studied using rabbit anti-HBc, directed against both HBcAg and HBeAg; differential distribution of HBcAg and HBeAg was studied using murine monoclonal anti-HBc and anti-HBe in 120 patients with chronic hepatitis B. RESULTS: HBV nucleocapsid antigen was detected in 14 of 16 (87.5%) HBeAg seropositive patients with chronic persistent hepatitis (CPH), and in 54 of 64 (84.4%) HBeAg seropositive patients with chronic active hepatitis (CAH). Nuclear expression of nucleocapsid antigen was more prevalent in patients with CPH than in those with CAH; this was reversed in terms of exclusive cytoplasmic expression of nucleocapsid antigen (p < 0.05). Of 45 patients with nucleocapsid antigen in the nucleus, samples from 44 (97.8%) and 17 (37.8%) stained positively with monoclonal anti-HBc and anti-HBe, respectively. Of 65 patients with cytoplasmic nucleocapsid antigen, samples from 61 (93.8%) and 57 (87.7%) stained positively with monoclonal anti-HBc and anti-HBe, respectively. CONCLUSIONS: HBV nucleocapsid antigen is more prevalent in HBeAg positive patients with CPH than in those with CAH. Cellular expression of HBcAg and HBeAg in the cytoplasm is more or less the same; in the nucleus HBcAg exceeds HBeAg expression.
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