The function of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) precore or HBeAg is largely unknown because it is not required for viral assembly, infection, or replication. However, the HBeAg does appear to play a role in viral persistence. It lias been suggested that the HBeAg may promote HBV chronicity by functioning as an immunoregulatory protein. As a model of chronic HBeAg exposure and to examine the tolerogenic potential of the HBV precore and core (HBcAg) proteins, HBc/HBeAg-transgenic (Tg) mice crossed with T cell receptor (TCR)-Tg mice expressing receptors for the HBc/HBeAgs (i.e., TCR-antigen double-Tg pairs) were produced. This study revealed three phenotypes of HBe/HBcAg-specific T-cell tolerance: (i) profound T-cell tolerance most likely mediated by clonal deletion, (ii) T-cell clonal ignorance, and (iii) nondeletional T-cell tolerance mediated by clonal anergy and dependent on the structure, location, and concentration of the tolerogen. The secreted HBeAg is significantly more efficient than the intracellular HBcAg at eliciting T-cell tolerance. The split T-cell tolerance between the HBeAg and the HBcAg and the clonal heterogeneity of HBc/HBeAg-specific T-cell tolerance may have significant implications for natural HBV infection and especially for precore-negative chronic hepatitis.
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