PloS one 2018 03 2913(3) e0195045 doi 10.1371/journal.pone.0195045
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) genotype E almost exclusively occurs in African people, and its presence is more commonly associated with the development of chronic HBV (CHB) infection. Moreover, an epidemiological link has been found between the distribution of HBV genotype E infection and African countries with high incidences of hepatocellular carcinoma. As part of a programme for the health assessment of migrants, we evaluated 358 young African subjects for HBV infection; 58.1% (208/358) were positive for an HBV marker, and 54 (25.5%) had CHB. Eighty-one percent of the CHB subjects were infected with HBV genotype E, with a median serum HBV-DNA of 3.2 (IQR: 2.7-3.6) logIU/ml. All patients had high serum HBsAg titres (10,899 [range 5,359-20,272] IU/ml), and no correlation was found between HBsAg titres and HBV-DNA plasma levels. RT sequence analysis showed the presence of a number of immune escape mutations: strains from all of the patients had a serine at HBsAg position 140; 3 also had T116N, Y100C, and P142L+S143L substitutions; and 1 had a G112R substitution. Six (18%) patients had stop-codons at position 216. In 5 of the 9 (26.5%) CHB patients, ultrasound liver biopsy, quantification of total intrahepatic HBV-DNA and cccDNA, and RT/HBsAg sequencing were performed. The median (IQR) total intrahepatic HBV-DNA was 766 (753-1139) copies/1000 cells, and the median (IQR) cccDNA was 17 (10-27) copies/1000 cells. Correlations were observed for both total intrahepatic HBV-DNA and cccDNA with serum HBV-DNA, while no correlation was found for the HBsAg titres. A difference of 2.5/1,000 nucleotides was found in the HBsAg sequences obtained from plasma and from liver tissue, with 3 cases of possible viral anatomical compartmentalization. In conclusion, a high rate of CHB infection due to the E genotype was demonstrated in a group of immigrants from Western Africa. An analysis of the viral strains obtained showed the virological characteristics of immune escape, which may be the cause of viral replication persistence. Moreover, a fair percentage of stop codon mutations were found. The lack of correlation between HBsAg titres and plasma or intrahepatic HBV-DNA found in these subjects suggests a pathway of virus production that is not linked to HBsAg secretion. Studies with a larger number of patients with CHB due to the E genotype are advisable to corroborate these observations.