A new vaccine being developed by a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark may reduce the number of positive hepatitis C tests in the future. They are reporting one of the first successful trials in inoculating animals against the disease.
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) infects at least 170 million people worldwide and about 4 million people in the United States. It is a big public health problem because most acute hepatitis C infections become chronic which can lead to further liver problems like cirrhosis and cancer.
"The hepatitis C virus (HCV) has the same infection pathways as HIV," says Jan Pravsgaard Christensen, Associate Professor of Infection Immunology at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen.
"Approximately one newly infected patient in five has an immune system capable of defeating an acute HCV infection in the first six months. But most cases do not present any symptoms at all and the virus becomes a chronic infection of the liver."
Every year three or four million more people become infected and the most frequent path of infection is needle sharing among drug addicts or tattoo artists with poor hygiene, such as tribal tattoo artists in Africa and Asia. Fifteen percent of new infections are sexually transmitted, while ten percent come from unscreened blood transfusions.
Scientists have been working for years to eradicate the disease by engineering a vaccine. However, the virus mutates rapidly, making it difficult to pin down. As soon as a vaccine can be developed, the microorganism has changed, making it immune to drugs.
Associate Professor Pravsgaard Christensen says, "Viruses like HCV mutate so rapidly that classical vaccine technology hasn't a chance of keeping up. But the molecules inside the virus do not mutate that rapidly, because the survival of the virus does not depend on it."
Furthermore, the body's immune system usually does a poor job of recognizing the virus and attacking it. To solve this problem, the researchers took a dead cold virus molecule and encoded bits of DNA from a hepatitis C molecule.
When this combination was injected into mice, the immune system immediately recognized the cold virus and built up antibodies to it. Since these molecules also had bits of hepatitis DNA, the mouse immune systems also developed defenses against the disease.
Given the high prevalence of the disease and the fact that it is so difficult to fight once it has reached a chronic stage, the researchers said that their vaccine has the possibility to save millions of lives.
To learn more about Hepatitis and treating patients with this disease, preview the recently published Hepatitis Essentials by Raymond S. Koff, MD. Hepatitis Essentials provides a concise overview of viral hepatitis, the most common cause of liver disease in the world, and serves as a guide to understanding hepatitis virology, epidemiology and prevention. This book is a must-have reference for primary care practitioners, gastroenterologists, hepatologists, and residents treating patients with chronic viral hepatitis.