Hepatitis B virus (HBV)-specific T cells play a key role in clearance of the virus and in the pathogenesis of liver disease. Peripheral blood (n = 25) and liver biopsies (n = 19) were collected from individuals with chronic untreated HBV infection. Whole blood, cultured peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), and cultured liver-infiltrating lymphocytes (LILs) were each stimulated with an overlapping peptide library to the whole HBV genome. The expression of T helper 1 (Th1) cytokines [interferon gamma (IFN-gamma), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), and interleukin 2 (IL-2)] and interleukin 10 (IL-10) was analyzed by intracellular cytokine staining and flow cytometry. In ex vivo whole blood, more lymphocytes produced Th1 cytokines than IL-10. When comparing cultured LILs with cultured PBMCs, we found a significantly higher magnitude of CD8(+) T cells from the liver producing IL-10 (P = 0.044), primarily in hepatitis B e antigen positive (HBeAg(+)) individuals. A positive correlation resulted between the magnitude of HBV-specific TNF-alpha(+) CD4(+) T cells in the liver and the degree of liver inflammation and fibrosis (P = 0.002 and P = 0.006, respectively).
The differences in cytokine production from HBV-specific T cells in blood and liver may explain the capacity for HBV to persist in the absence of significant hepatic destruction and highlights the balance between cytokine-mediated viral control and liver damage.