Expanding Treatment Population in Chronic Hepatitis B?

W-J Jeng. AS Lok. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol 2021; 19: 2006-2014. Open Access: Should Treatment Indications for Chronic Hepatitis B Be Expanded?

In this review, the authors propose expanding treatment indications for chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV).

The authors review current guidelines (Table 2 lists the major society recommendations). For example, the AASLD recommends HBV treatment for the following:

  • Antiviral treatment in all patients with cirrhosis and detectable viremia, independent of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) or HBV DNA levels
  • For patients without cirrhosis, all guidelines recommend treatment in patients with immune active disease; treatment is mainly with a NA (nucleos(t)ide analog) until 1 year after confirmed HBeAg seroconversion for patients who were HBeAg-positive and until HBsAg loss for patients who were HBeAg-negative at the start of treatment
  • AASLD cut-offs for distinguishing immune active disease: ALT ≥2× ULN or evidence of significant histologic disease and HBV DNA >20,000 IU/mL for HBeAg (+) and >2000 IU/mL for HBeAg (–)

Why Expand Treatment Indications?

The main reason for advocating treatment of patients in the immune tolerant phase is the mounting evidence that persistently high viremia and persistent presence of HBeAg are associated with increased risk of cirrhosis, HCC, and liver-related mortality…In one study of 438 HBeAg-positive patients, the 15-year cumulative risk of cirrhosis and HCC increased from 3.7% and 2.1% in patients who seroconverted before age 30 to 12.9% and 3.2% in those who seroconverted between ages 30 and 40 and 42.9% and 7.7% in those who did so after age 40

Why Not Treat All Patients with Chronic Hepatitis B?

“An important reason for deferring treatment of patients in the immune tolerant phase is that spontaneous HBeAg and HBsAg clearance with remission of liver disease can occur.” This happens in 80% or more over 10-20 years.

Who Else Should Receive Treatment (Beyond Guidelines)?

“Available data support expanding treatment to immune tolerant patients and patients in the grey zones who have evidence of active/advanced liver disease based on liver biopsy or non-invasive tests and those who remain in the immune tolerant phase after age 40. Evidence supporting treatment expansion to confirmed inactive carriers and other immune tolerant patients is lacking.” “Grey zones” indicate that “the course of chronic HBV infection is characterized by fluctuations in HBV DNA and ALT levels, and many patients will be in the grey zone at some point.”

My take: Given the safety/tolerability of newer HBV treatments, these recommendations make sense. If/when HBV treatments improve further (higher loss of HBsAg or HBV DNA), then even more widespread use of HBV treatments would be worthwhile.

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Why Fewer Children Have Immune-Tolerant Hepatitis B Infection Than Previously

A recent study (KB Schwarz et al. JPGN 2019; 69: 588-94) highlights the chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) phenotypes from a large pediatric North American cohort (n=371).

  • Immune-tolerant HBV was define by HBe-Ag-positivity along with normal ALT levels.
  • Inactive carrier were HBe-Ag-negative with low HBV DNA/normal ALT.
  • Chronic hepatitis B (HBeAg positive and HBeAg negative) had high HBV DNA and abnormal ALT values.
  • Indeterminant HBV had characteristics did not allow them to classified in these four categories.

Key findings:

  • If local laboratory normative values were used 36% of children would have been classified as immune-tolerant*.  However, this drops down to 12% if updated upper limits of normal (ULN) are used based on Figure 3.
  • Using updated ULN, 62% had immune active HBeAg+ disease, 12% with immune-tolerant HBV, 4% with immune-active HBeAg-negative disease, 6% with inactive carrier, and 16% indeterminant HBV.

*There are a few discrepancies between Figure 3 and the abstract data.  The abstract states that 82% would be considered to have chronic hepatitis B (this is 62% in figure 3). The abstract states that 35% were immune-tolerant based on local lab values.

The data presented were cross-sectional data at time of patient enrollment.

My take: this study shows that very few children in this cohort were immune tolerant based on more precise ULN values.  The authors note that the cohort who were immune tolerant were largely drawn from Asian children (most often infected perinatally).

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