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Hepatitis B virus X (HBx) protein is a multifunctional protein that exerts dual activity on cell proliferation and death. Although HBx is thought to be a major determinant that leads to hepatocellular carcinoma, its pathophysiological role in humans remains to be established. Attempts have been made to evaluate the role of HBx in liver specimens derived from patients with chronic B viral hepatitis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Among 25 paired liver specimens of hepatocellular carcinoma and corresponding nontumour liver tissues, HBx mRNA was hardly detected and was significantly lower than other HBV transcripts. An immunohistochemical study demonstrated that expression of HBx protein was also lower than other HBV gene products. Interestingly, however, expression of HBx protein changed with the progression of chronic hepatitis. HBx was expressed in 5.0% of patients with chronic hepatitis without cirrhosis but increased to 44.8% in chronic hepatitis with cirrhosis. In contrast, only one (3.7%) of 27 hepatocellular carcinomas showed HBx positivity whereas 29.6% of surrounding nontumour tissues was still HBx-positive. These results suggest that HBx may play a major role at the promotion stage of carcinogenesis. Noticeably, HBx-positive cells were preferentially localized in the periportal region of chronic hepatitis or periphery of cirrhotic nodules where high necroinflammatory activity was accompanied. We found a positive correlation between HBx expression and periportal inflammatory activity (P < 0.001). Thus, HBx may potentiate cell destruction and regeneration of liver that provide an opportunity for the accumulation of genetic mutations, which contribute to multistep hepatocarcinogenesis.