The nucleocapsid of hepatitis B virus is both a T-cell-independent and a T-cell-dependent antigen

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Science  12 Dec 1986:
Vol. 234, Issue 4782, pp. 1398-1401
DOI: 10.1126/science.3491425


One characteristic of the immune response during hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection in humans is the vigorous production and subsequent persistence of antibodies of immunoglobulin (Ig) classes M and G to the nucleocapsid antigen (HBcAg). In this study HBcAg was shown to be similarly immunogenic in mice. When injected into athymic (nude) B10.BR and athymic BALB/c mice, HBcAg induced IgM and IgG class antibodies to HBc in spite of the absence of T cells in nude mice. In euthymic mice, HBcAg efficiently stimulated T-cell proliferation in vitro and helper T-cell function in vivo. The dual functions of HBcAg as a T-cell-independent and a T-cell-dependent antigen may explain its enhanced immunogenicity. Denaturation of HBcAg yields a nonparticulate antigen designated HBeAg; when HBeAg was used as the immunogen, antibody production required helper T-cell function. Although HBcAg and HBeAg are serologically distinct, they are structurally related, and in these experiments were highly cross-reactive at the T-cell level. These results suggest that the elevated levels of IgM antibodies to HBc and the enhanced immunogenicity of HBcAg during HBV infection in humans reflect the ability of HBcAg to directly activate B cells to produce antibodies to HBc in the presence or absence of HBcAg- or HBeAg-sensitized T cells.