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T cell proliferative responses to hepatitis B virus-encoded envelope antigen (S + preS2 + preS1), recombinant core antigen (HBcAg), and natural hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) were examined in 22 HBeAg-positive patients with chronic type B hepatitis and 17 healthy hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) carriers. The results showed that HBeAg-positive patients had (a) higher levels of T cell responses to HBcAg/HBeAg than those of healthy HBsAg carriers (P less than 0.001 and P less than 0.01, respectively); (b) a further increase in these T cell responses during acute exacerbations (P less than 0.05 and P less than 0.05, respectively); (c) subsidence in the T cell responses to HBcAg/HBeAg after recovery from acute exacerbations and HBeAg seroconversion, whereas the responses would persist at high levels if the patients did not enter a clinical remission; and (d) low levels of T cell responses to S + preS2 + preS1 either before or after HBeAg seroconversion. The appearance of increasing T cell responses to HBcAg/HBeAg usually occurred in the early phase of acute exacerbations. These findings imply that HBcAg/HBeAg-specific T cells play an important role in the exacerbations of chronic hepatitis B and in HBeAg seroconversion. HBcAg/HBeAg-specific precursor T cell frequencies were serially studied in selected cases by limiting dilution assay. Elevation (two- to fourfold) of HBcAg/HBeAg-specific precursor T cell frequencies contributed to the increase of HBcAg/HBeAg-specific T cell proliferation during acute exacerbations.