T- and B-cell responses and previous exposure to hepatitis B virus in ‘anti-HBc alone’ patients

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A serologic response to hepatitis B virus (HBV) defined as ‘anti-HBc alone’ is commonly observed, but its significance remains unclear. This study aimed to define the relationship between ‘anti-HBc alone’ serostatus and HBV infection, including HBV-specific T- and B-cell memory responses. We enrolled 31 ‘anti-HBc alone’ patients. Total HBV DNA and cccDNA were tested by nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis in liver samples from 22 ‘anti-HBc alone’ patients vs controls (chronic or resolved HBV infection), followed by HBsAg/HBcAg immunohistochemical (IHC) staining. IFN-γ secretion by HBV-specific T cells was compared in individuals who were ‘anti-HBc alone’ (n = 27), resolved HBV (n = 21), chronic HBV (n = 24) and 12 healthy controls using enzyme-linked immunospot (ELISpot) assays. An HBsAg-IgG B-cell ELISpot assay was performed in ‘anti-HBc alone’ patients before and after one dose of recombinant HBsAg vaccine. The majority (23/31, 74.2%) of the ‘anti-HBc alone’ individuals were co-infected with HCV. Infrequent intrahepatic total HBV DNA (2/22, 9.1%) and cccDNA (1/22, 4.5%) were detected in biopsies; HBsAg and HBcAg IHC staining was negative. HBV-specific T-cell responses were similar between ‘anti-HBc alone’ individuals and HBV resolvers. Circulating HBV-memory B-cell responses were detected in all ‘anti-HBc alone’ individuals, consistent with an HBsAg-specific memory pool. After one HBV vaccine dose, increased anti-HBs antibody levels were observed, accompanied by an expansion of HBsAg-specific memory B cells (P = 0.0226). ‘Anti-HBc alone’ individuals showed HBV-specific T-cell and memory B-cell responses typical of previous viral exposure and protective memory, suggesting a resolved infection.

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