Knowledge of the immune effector mechanisms responsible for clearance of hepatitis B virus (HBV)-infected cells has been severely limited by the absence of reproducible systems to selectively expand and to characterize HBV-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) in the peripheral blood of patients with viral hepatitis. By using a strategy involving sequential stimulation with HBV nucleocapsid synthetic peptides followed by autologous, or HLA class I-matched, HBV nucleocapsid transfectants, we now report the existence of CTLs able to lyse target cells that express endogenously synthesized HBV nucleocapsid antigen in the peripheral blood of patients with acute viral hepatitis B. The CTL response is HLA-A2 restricted, mediated by CD8-positive T cells, and specific for a single epitope, located between amino acid residues 11 and 27 of HBV core protein; these residues are shared with the secretable precore-derived hepatitis B e antigen. Equivalent lysis of target cells that express each of these proteins suggests that their intracellular trafficking pathways may intersect. The current report provides definitive evidence that HLA class I-restricted, CD8-positive CTLs that recognize endogenously synthesized HBV nucleocapsid antigen are induced during acute HBV infection in humans and establishes a strategy that should permit a detailed analysis of the role played by HBV-specific CTLs in the immunopathogenesis of viral hepatitis.