Viral infections are some of the most difficult problems medical professionals have to face. They can be highly contagious, easily spread, and very difficult to treat. This is why most viral infections, such as the common cold, are only managed by treating the symptoms until the body can effectively eliminate the foreign organism.
Not all viral infections are defeated with time. Such as is the case with the hepatitis virus. While there exist several types (types A, B, C, D, and E), hepatitis C is an infection that infects a person for years if not their entire lives.
Hepatitis C affects nearly 71 million people worldwide and can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer if left untreated. While antiviral medication has been recently created to help eradicate the virus, a staggering 80 percent of sufferers don’t even know they have the infection due to its rather mild initial presentation.
This has led researchers to promote prevention over treatment. Much like how we now get hepatitis B vaccinations, a new study is paving the way for a hepatitis c vaccination.
As of 2015, a group of researchers had successfully created a cure for hepatitis C in the form of an oral medication taken over the course of six months. The same researchers have now uncovered a method to mimic the disease in rodents, helping to better provide a model for testing.
Having rodent models for the hepatitis C virus is a breakthrough that will accelerate vaccine research.
“We need to use animals to watch the disease develop over time and monitor how the immune system responds. This hasn’t been feasible for the hepatitis C virus, which has made our work very difficult,” explains Eva Billerbeck, a research associate in the Rice lab and lead author on the new research.
Hepatitis C is a highly specific virus, only infecting humans and chimpanzees. This severely limits the study of the disease, as it was previously only possible to rely on blood samples and liver biopsies of infected patients.
This discovery was actually found by accident while studying the pathogens that infect common rats on the streets of New York City. It was found that a very similar virus to hepatitis C was seen in the rats.
“This research will help unravel mechanisms of liver infection, virus clearance, and disease mechanisms. Which should prove valuable as we work to develop and test hepatitis C vaccines that can help to finally eradicate the disease around the world,” said Charlie Rice, professor of virology at The Rockefeller University.