Protein discovery may lead to hepatitis C vaccine

Hepatitis C virus is a major global health problem with 160 million people infected throughout the world, about four times more individuals than those with HIV.  Most of those infected don't show symptoms until the virus—the number one cause of liver transplantation—has caused severe liver damage. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Scientists have determined the structure of a hepatitis C surface protein, a finding that could lead to a vaccine to halt the spread of the deadly disease.

Hepatitis C is constantly mutating, allowing it to infect a host cell and evade the immune responses. The result is an infection that can be difficult to treat.

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By identifying the structure of the virus’s outer protein, scientists may be able to develop a vaccine that targets vulnerable regions of the virus and prevents infection.

“Viruses are smart and it is a constant battle to keep them out,” says Joseph Marcotrigiano associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers. “That’s why the development of a vaccine is so important.  It’s always better to prevent infection through an effective vaccine than to treat after a chronic infection has been established.”

Hepatitis C virus is a major global health problem with 160 million people infected throughout the world, about four times more individuals than those with HIV.  Most of those infected don’t show symptoms until the virus—the number one cause of liver transplantation—has caused severe liver damage.

Neutralize the virus

The virus is mainly spread through contact with an infected person’s blood, such as sharing of needles. Prior to 1992, when donated blood began being tested, the virus was also spread through blood transfusions and organ donation.

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved several new drugs that could cure many patients infected with hepatitis C in as little as 12 weeks. However, at about $1,000 per pill this may not be a cost-effective solution.

Developing a vaccine against hepatitis C would not only prevent people from acquiring the disease, Marcotrigiano says, but would also be the most cost-conscious health intervention.

Michael Houghton, a researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada, has been developing a vaccine that is currently being tested clinically.  Houghton, who led a team that discovered the hepatitis C virus in 1989, says the new findings are important because knowing the structure of the virus will help in the development of a vaccine that enables the immune system to produce more infection-fighting antibodies that can neutralize the virus.

Researchers at Emory University collaborated on the research.

Source: Rutgers