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J Virol. 1997 March; 71(3): 2192–2201.
PMCID: PMC191326

The hepatitis B virus core and e antigens elicit different Th cell subsets: antigen structure can affect Th cell phenotype.


Secretion of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) e antigen (HBeAg) has been conserved throughout the evolution of hepadnaviruses. However, the function of this secreted form of the viral nucleoprotein remains enigmatic. It has been suggested that HBeAg functions as an immunomodulator. We therefore examined the possibility that the two structural forms of the viral nucleoprotein, the particulate HBV core (HBcAg) and the nonparticulate HBeAg, may preferentially elicit different T helper (Th) cell subsets. For this purpose, mice were immunized with recombinant HBcAg and HBeAg in the presence and absence of adjuvants, and the immunoglobulin G (IgG) isotype profiles of anti-HBc and anti-HBe antibodies were determined. Second, in vitro cytokine production by HBcAg- and HBeAg-primed Th cells was measured. The immunogenicity of HBcAg, in contrast to that of HBeAg, did not require the use of adjuvants. Furthermore, HBcAg elicited primarily IgG2a and IgG2b anti-HBc antibodies, with a low level of IgG3, and no IgG1 anti-HBc antibodies. In contrast, the anti-HBe antibody response was dominated by the IgG1 isotype; low levels of IgG2a or IgG2b anti-HBe antibodies and no IgG3 anti-HBe antibodies were produced. Cytokine production by HBcAg- and HBeAg-primed Th cells was consistent with the IgG isotype profiles. HBcAg-primed Th cells efficiently produced interleukin-2 (IL-2) and gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) and low levels of IL-4. Conversely, efficient IL-4 production and lesser amounts of IFN-gamma were elicited by HBeAg immunization. The results indicate that HBcAg preferentially, but not exclusively, elicits Th1-like cells and that HBeAg preferentially, but not exclusively, elicits Th0 or Th2-like cells. Because HBcAg and the HBeAg are cross-reactive in terms of Th cell recognition, these findings demonstrate that Th cells with the same specificity can develop into different Th subsets based on the structural form of the immunogen. These results may have relevance to chronic HBV infection. Circulating HBeAg may downregulate antiviral clearance mechanisms by virtue of eliciting anti-inflammatory Th2-like cytokine production. Last, the influence of antigen structure on Th cell phenotype was not absolute and could be modulated by in vivo cytokine treatment. For example, IFN-alpha treatment inhibited HBeAg-specific Th2-mediated antibody production and altered the IgG anti-HBe isotype profile toward the Th1 phenotype.

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