Interleukin-12 (IL-12) is a heterodimeric cytokine produced by antigen-presenting cells that has the ability to induce gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) secretion by T and natural killer cells and to generate normal Th1 responses. These properties suggest that IL-12 may play an important role in the immune response to many viruses, including hepatitis B virus (HBV). Recently, we have shown that HBV-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes inhibit HBV replication in the livers of transgenic mice by a noncytolytic process that is mediated in part by IFN-gamma. In the current study, we demonstrated that the same antiviral response can be initiated by recombinant murine IL-12 and we showed that the antiviral effect of IL-12 extends to extrahepatic sites such as the kidney. Southern blot analyses revealed the complete disappearance of HBV replicative intermediates from liver and kidney tissues at IL-12 doses that induce little or no inflammation in these tissues. In addition, immunohistochemical analysis demonstrated the disappearance of cytoplasmic hepatitis B core antigen from both tissues after IL-12 treatment, suggesting that IL-12 either prevents the assembly or triggers the degradation of the nucleocapsid particles within which HBV replication occurs. Importantly, we demonstrated that although IFN-gamma, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and IFN-alpha/beta mRNA are induced in the liver and kidney after IL-12 administration, the antiviral effect of IL-12 is mediated principally by its ability to induce IFN-gamma production in this model. These results suggest that IL-12, through its ability to induce IFN-gamma, probably plays an important role in the antiviral immune response to HBV during natural infection. Further, since relatively nontoxic doses of recombinant IL-12 profoundly inhibit HBV replication in the liver and extrahepatic sites in this model, IL-12 may have therapeutic value as an antiviral agent for the treatment of chronic HBV infection.