We have recently developed the technology to identify and characterize the human histocompatibility leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I-restricted, CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) response to hepatitis B virus (HBV)-encoded antigens in patients with acute viral hepatitis. CTL are expanded in vitro by stimulation with HBV-derived synthetic peptides and selected by restimulation with a panel of HLA-matched stable transfectants that express the corresponding HBV protein. We have recently reported the existence of an HLA-A2-restricted, CD8+ CTL response to an epitope located between residues 18 and 27 of the HBV nucleocapsid core antigen (HBcAg). We now report the discovery of a CTL epitope located between HBcAg residues 141 and 151 that completely overlaps a critical domain in the viral nucleocapsid protein that is essential for its nuclear localization and genome packaging functions as well as processing of the precore protein. The CTL response to this epitope is dually restricted by the HLA-A31 and HLA-Aw68 alleles, which, unexpectedly, appear to use a common binding motif based on the results of alanine substitution and competition analysis, and the binding properties of these two alleles predicted from their known primary sequence, and from the three-dimensional structure of HLA-Aw68. We have also demonstrated that the HBV-specific CTL response to this epitope is polyclonal during acute viral hepatitis, since these two restriction elements can present the HBcAg 141-151 epitope to independent CTL clones derived from a single patient; and that the CTL response is multispecific, since HLA-A2-restricted and HLA-Aw68-restricted CTL responses to HBcAg 18-27 and HBcAg 141-151, respectively, have been identified to coexist in another patient. The foregoing argue against the emergence of CTL escape mutants as a significant problem during HBV infection, especially at this locus, where mutations might be incompatible with viral replication. Finally, our data suggest an association between the HBV-specific CTL response and viral clearance, and they have implications for the design of immunotherapeutic strategies to terminate HBV infection in chronically infected patients.

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