Abstract OBJECTIVE: The nucleoside analogue lamivudine, a potent inhibitor of hepatitis B virus replication, has shown notable results in treating chronic hepatitis B. However, lamivudine has not been specifically tested for effectiveness against spontaneously occurring severe acute exacerbations of hepatitis in patients chronically infected with this virus. We addressed this issue in a pilot study. METHODS: Ten patients with chronic hepatitis B developed severe acute exacerbation spontaneously during follow-up; 3 of them developed hepatic failure shortly before entering the trial. Lamivudine was administered long-term to the 10 patients at a daily oral dose of 100 or 300 mg. RESULTS: All 3 patients with hepatic failure at initiation of treatment recovered dramatically. Of the remaining 7 patients, 5 recovered rapidly with lamivudine, but 2 progressed quickly to hepatic failure despite treatment. One died of sepsis and the other of multiorgan failure. In the 8 survivors, serum alanine transaminase activity decreased rapidly to normal with lamivudine therapy, and serum hepatitis B virus DNA level declined rapidly to undetectable levels. Serum total bilirubin concentrations normalized somewhat later. Prothrombin time improved steadily and gradually. Hepatitis B e antigen elimination or seroconversion was achieved in 3 survivors. No adverse effects were noted in any patient. All survivors had good quality of life with long-term lamivudine monotherapy. CONCLUSIONS: Lamivudine is effective, safe, and well tolerated by patients with spontaneous, severe, acute exacerbation complicating chronic hepatitis B virus infection, even in the presence of hepatic failure. Lamivudine appears to be an attractive therapeutic option and may represent the best choice.