Hepatitis C virus is a rather common disease. World Health Organization counts that there are 130–150 million people globally have chronic hepatitis C infection and around 500 thousand people die each year from the disease.
Currently there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, even though research in this area is ongoing. However, now scientists at the University of Adelaide have uncovered the role of a family of genes, which can suppress hepatitis C virus infection within the liver. This study demonstrates how these genes produce a natural immune response to the virus.
Some may wonder why university in Australia is interested in hepatitis C research. Even though WHO notes that hepatitis C infection affects Africa and Central and East Asia the most, virus can be found worldwide. Although usually it is concentrated in certain populations (for example, between people who inject drugs), general populations are affected too. Scientists note that hepatitis C virus is actually a major health problem in Australia.
About 233 thousand Australians have this disease, which is transmitted through contaminated blood. Not treated hepatitis C virus can cause chronic disease and liver cancer, and both diseases are increasing in frequency. This is why fighting and learning to prevent this virus is extremely important worldwide, regardless if country is considered to be developed or still developing.
New research at the University of Adelaide has revealed the first time that antiviral proteins, called IFITM proteins, produced through the natural immune response block the entry of the hepatitis C virus into the cell. Professor Michael Beard, one of the authors of the study, explained: “we now have a good idea of what the IFITM proteins do in liver cells and how they act to suppress hepatitis C infection. This improved understanding of the host response to HCV infection, and the HCV entry process, will provide new direction for the development of therapeutic treatments to either heighten this natural response, or generate mimics to target the virus specifically.”
The proteins in question – IFITM1, IFITM2 and IFITM3 – have been shown before in laboratory settings to have some anti-viral properties. Previous researches have shown that these proteins have anti-viral action against a number of different viruses, including hepatitis C virus. However, up until now the actual role of the proteins in suppressing hepatitis C virus has been mostly unknown.
Now scientists studied the impact of the proteins on hepatitis C infection in liver cells. The study revealed that the liver cells that express high levels of the IFITM proteins are resistant to hepatitis C infection, because these proteins block the entry for the virus into the cells. Scientists say that it looks like these proteins act together in order to accomplish this function, preventing hepatitis C virus from entering the cell.
Results of this research may eventually lead to developing of new techniques which would enhance these mechanisms and would prevent hepatitis C virus from causing and infection. Because there are no vaccines at the moment, all prevention methods are worth the attention.
Currently WHO recommends better hygiene, safe handling of medical waste and education in order to reduce the risk of getting hepatitis C virus infection. However, therapeutic measures, such as drugs, would be much better, especially in certain populations that have greater risk of getting infected. But this research is not currently aimed at create vaccine – it may create techniques to help prevent the infection, but we will have to wait for actual vaccines.