Breakthrough opens new avenues for hepatitis C vaccine

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Hopes for an effective vaccine and treatment against the potentially fatal hepatitis C virus (HCV) have received a major boost following the discovery of two ‘Achilles’ heels’ within the virus.

A team of medical researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) studied individuals at high risk of HCV infection, including a number identified within a few weeks of the onset of infection.

Using a new technique called next generation deep sequencing and sophisticated computer analytics the team, led by Professor Andrew Lloyd and Associate Professor Peter White, were able to identify the ‘founder’ virus responsible for the initial infection and then track changes within the virus as it was targeted by the immune system.

“We discovered that hepatitis C has not one but two ‘Achilles’ heels’ that provide opportunities for vaccine development,” said Dr Fabio Luciani, from UNSW’s Inflammation and Infection Research Centre and the research team’s biostatistician.

“If we can help the immune system to attack the virus at these weak points early on, then we could eliminate the infection in the body completely,” he said.

A paper describing the breakthrough appears in the leading scientific journal in the field of virology, PLoS Pathogens.

Hepatitis C virus infection is a global pandemic with more than 120 million people infected worldwide, including some 200,000 Australians. The virus causes progressive liver disease leading to cirrhosis, liver failure and cancer. Current antiviral treatments are arduous, costly, and only partially effective.

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