The absence of readily manipulable experimental systems to study the cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) response against hepatitis B virus (HBV) antigens has thus far precluded a definitive demonstration of the role played by this response in the pathogenesis of liver cell injury and viral clearance during HBV infection. To circumvent the problem that HBV infection of human cells in vitro for production of stimulator/target systems for CTL analysis is not feasible, a panel of 22 overlapping synthetic peptides covering the entire amino acid sequence of the HBV core (HBcAg) and e (HBeAg) antigens were used to induce and to analyze the HBV nucleocapsid-specific CTL response in nine patients with acute hepatitis B, six patients with chronic active hepatitis B, and eight normal controls. By using this approach, we have identified an HLA-A2-restricted CTL epitope, located within the NH2-terminal region of the HBV core molecule, which is shared with the e antigen and is readily recognized by peripheral blood mononuclear cells from patients with self-limited acute hepatitis B but less efficiently in chronic HBV infection. Our study provides the first direct evidence of HLA class I-restricted T cell cytotoxicity against HBV in humans. Furthermore, the different response in HBV-infected subjects who successfully clear the virus (acute patients) in comparison with patients who do not succeed (chronic patients) suggests a pathogenetic role for this CTL activity in the clearance of HBV infection.