Hepatitis B virus surface protein mutations clustered mainly in CTL immune epitopes in chronic carriers: results of an Iranian nationwide study

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Mutations within the coding region of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) have been found naturally in chronic carriers. To characterize the mutations of HBsAg from Iranian chronic carriers who were vaccine and/or medication naive. The surface genes from 360 patients were amplified and directly sequenced. The distribution of amino acid substitutions was classified according to different immune epitopes of the surface protein. All isolates belonged to genotype D. 222 (61.6%) of 360 patients contained at least one amino acid substitution. 404 (74.5%) of 542 amino acid changes occurred in different immune epitopes of HBsAg, of which 112 (27.7%) in 32 residues of B-cell epitopes (62 in the ‘a’ determinant); 111 (27.4%) in 32 residues of T helper; and 197 (48.7%) in 32 residues inside cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) epitopes. One Th (186–197) and two CTL (28–51 and 206–215) epitopes were found to be hotspot motifs for the occurrence of 213 (52.7%) substitutions. 20 stop codons were identified in different epitopes. There was a significant association between amino acid substitutions and anti-HBe seropositivity; however, the correlation between such changes with viral load and ALT levels was not significant. In chronic hepatitis B virus(HBV) carriers, positive selection in particular outside the ‘a’ determinant appeared to exert influence on the surface proteins. These changes could be immune escape mutations naturally occurring due to the host immune surveillance especially at the T-cell level.

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