1State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, Collaborative Innovation Center for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, The First Affiliated Hospital, College of Medicine, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, People's Republic of China.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is the major cause of inflammatory liver disease, of which the clinical recovery and effective anti-viral therapy is associated with the sustained viral control of effector T cells. In humans, chronic HBV infection often shows weak or absent virus-specific T-cell reactivity, which is described as the 'exhaustion' state characterized by poor effector cytotoxic activity, impaired cytokine production and sustained expression of multiple inhibitory receptors, such as programmed cell death-1 (PD-1), lymphocyte activation gene-3, cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen-4 and CD244. As both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells participate in the immune responses against chronic hepatitis virus through distinct manners, compelling evidences have been proposed, which restore the anti-viral function of these exhausted T cells by blocking those inhibitory receptors with its ligand and will pave the way for the development of more effective immunotherapeutic and prophylactic strategies for the treatment of chronic infectious diseases. A large number of studies have stated the essentiality of T-cell exhaustion in virus-infected diseases, such as LCMV, hepatitis C virus (HCV), human immunodeficiency virus infections and cancers. Besides, the functional restoration of HCV- and HIV-specific CD8+ T cells by PD-1 blockade has already been repeatedly verified, and also for the immunological control of tumors in humans, blocking the PD-1 pathway could be a major immunotherapeutic strategy. Although the specific molecular pathways of T-cell exhaustion remain ambiguous, several transcriptional pathways have been implicated in T-cell exhaustion recently; among them Blimp-1, T-bet and NFAT2 were able to regulate exhausted T cells during chronic viral infection, suggesting a distinct lineage fate for this sub-population of T cells. This paper summarizes the current literature relevant to T-cell exhaustion in patients with HBV-related chronic hepatitis, the options for identifying new potential therapeutic targets to treat HBV infection and highlights priorities for further study.