In occult hepatitis B viral infection (OBI), the persistence of hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA is associated with a lack of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). To assess the possible role of HBsAg immune escape variants in OBI patients, variability in the HBV S gene was evaluated for OBI patients as well as chronic HBV infection patients from the same families.
We selected 17 HBV DNA-positive/HBsAg-negative patients (OBI group) and 15 HBV DNA- and HBsAg-positive patients from OBI families (control group). The S gene was amplified and cloned, and at least 15 clones per patient were sequenced and analyzed.
Although the incidence of stop codon mutations within the S region was higher in the OBI group (13.6 %) than in the control group (1.5 %, P < 0.001), this type of mutation, together with insertion and deletion mutations, was prevalent in only three OBI patients. In the major hydrophilic region (MHR), a median of 0.75 residues were altered in every 100 residues for the OBI patients, whereas 0.95 out of 100 residues were changed in the control group (P = 0.428). Furthermore, some variants that are generally considered immune escape variants, such as mutations at positions s145, s147, and s123, were only observed in less than 5 % of all the clones sequenced, in either OBI or control group.
Our data suggest that HBsAg variants may not play a major role in OBI pathogenesis.