Studies on the pathobiology of chronic (long-term) hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection and in vitro drug testing have been hampered by the lack of appropriate systems for culturing susceptible cells chronically infected with HBV. Most of the in vitro studies of HBV replication have been performed with HBV genome-transduced cell lines. In this system, viral production is mainly the result of chromosomal replication. In an in vitro infection system, owing to medium refreshment (which leads to the removal of infectious particles necessary for the perpetuation of infection) and to trypsinization for cell passages, it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain chronic HBV infection, despite the use of susceptible cells. To circumvent these unfavourable factors for chronic HBV infection in vitro, we cultured microcarrier-attached immortalized human hepatocytes, infected with HBV, in molecularporous (MW 12 000-14 000) membrane (dialysis) bags for a duration of 2 months. HBV covalently-closed-circular (ccc) DNA, HBV precore/core and X mRNAs were detected in the cells cultured in this system following infection until the end of the experiment (day 58), while in classical culture conditions (monolayer), markers of HBV replication were also detected. Production of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and HBV DNA was detected and their levels in culture medium (collected at the end of experiments from the molecularporous membrane bags) were increased 2.86- and 3.28-fold respectively. Using Southern blot analysis, HBV replicative intermediates could also be demonstrated throughout the experiments. However, integrated HBV DNA was not present. In contrast, HBV ccc DNA, HBV precore/core and X mRNAs, and replicative intermediates were not demonstrable in FTO 2B rat hepatoma cells infected in the same manner in parallel experiments. This in vitro infection system, using susceptible, immortalized human hepatocytes, therefore provides a new tool for studying the long-term effect of HBV infection, mainly involving episomal replication in hepatocytes, and for drug testing.