1Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Department of Medicine, Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford, California, USA. Electronic address: email@example.com.
2Arrowhead Research Corporation, Pasadena, California, USA.
3The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.
4Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, Victoria, Australia.
5Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China.
The host immune system plays an important role in chronic hepatitis B (CHB), both in viral clearance and hepatocellular damage. Advances in our understanding of the natural history of the disease have led to redefining the major phases of infection, with the "high replicative, low inflammatory" phase now replacing what was formerly termed the "immune tolerant" phase, and the "nonreplicative phase" replacing what was formerly termed the "inactive carrier" phase. As opposed to the earlier view that HBV establishes chronic infection by exploiting the immaturity of the neonate's immune system, new findings on trained immunity show that the host is already somewhat "matured" following birth, and is actually very capable of responding immunologically, potentially altering future hepatitis B treatment strategies. While existing therapies are effective in reducing viral load and necroinflammation, often restoring the patient to near-normal health, they do not lead to a cure except in very rare cases and, in many patients, viremia rebounds after cessation of treatment. Researchers are now challenged to devise therapies that will eliminate infection, with a particular focus on eliminating the persistence of viral cccDNA in the nuclei of hepatocytes. In the context of chronic hepatitis B, new definitions of 'cure' are emerging, such as 'functional' and 'virological' cure, defined by stable off-therapy suppression of viremia and antigenemia, and the normalization of serum ALT and other liver-related laboratory tests. Continued advances in the understanding of the complex biology of chronic hepatitis B have resulted in the development of new, experimental therapies targeting viral and host factors and pathways previously not accessible to therapy, approaches which may lead to virological cures in the near term and functional cures upon long term follow-up. This article forms part of a symposium in Antiviral Research on "An unfinished story: from the discovery of the Australia antigen to the development of new curative therapies for hepatitis B."