Hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg)-specific T cell lines were established from hepatic lymphomononuclear cells derived from five patients with chronic active hepatitis B. No hepatitis B virus envelope antigen-specific cell lines were established. Proliferation in response to recombinant and native HBcAg, but not to native hepatitis B surface antigen containing the pre-S(2) region, confirmed the specificity of the five T cell lines. All cell lines represented mixed populations of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. The CD4+ subset provided antigen-specific help to autologous B cells with respect to anti-HBc production and to CD8+ cells with regard to HBcAg-induced proliferation and suppressor activity. The CD8+ subset contained suppressor cells that selectively inhibited the proliferative response of autologous HBcAg-specific CD4+ cells without inhibiting CD4+ cells of unrelated specificity (tetanus toxoid). Moreover, the CD8+ cells were also capable of suppressing HBcAg-stimulated antibody to HBcAg production without showing inhibition of total immunoglobulin production stimulated by pokeweed mitogen. The cytotoxic potential of the T cell lines was established in a lectin-dependent cytotoxicity system; natural killer cytotoxicity was completely absent. Our data suggest that the lesional T cells present at the site of hepatocellular injury in chronic active hepatitis B are primarily HBcAg-specific lymphocytes of the helper and suppressor/cytotoxic phenotypes and that both are functionally competent.