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HCV Discovery and Prevention Could Come from the Same Scientist

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The individual who first identified the Hepatitis C virus might be the same person responsible for ending its infectious reign.

Although not yet identified, thousands of people are believed to have contracted the Hepatitis C virus – a potentially fatal liver illness – before 1989. At that time, Dr. Michael Houghton led the research team that finally recognized and isolated the Hepatitis C virus. Despite being capable of severe liver destruction, the complexities of Hepatitis C have precluded scientists from creating an effective, preventative vaccine. However, a recent announcement from Houghton, the same man responsible for discovering the Hepatitis C virus, indicates that his decade-long effort to prevent Hepatitis C is making progress.

The most common types of viral hepatitis are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. Most people recover from Hepatitis A without lasting liver damage. However, Hepatitis B and C can cause chronic liver disease, leading to cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure. With chronic liver disease, patients are usually asymptomatic until liver damage has advanced beyond repair.

Hepatitis C is emerging as one of the most concerning public health issues today:

  • Worldwide, an estimated 170 million people have the virus.
  • At least four million people are infected with Hepatitis C in the U.S.
  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one of every 33 baby boomers is living with Hepatitis C.
  • In the U.S., Hepatitis C is the leading cause for liver transplants.
  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Hepatitis C has surpassed HIV as a cause of mortality in the United States.
  • Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne chronic viral infection.

The scale of this problem is compounded by the fact that most people only discover they are infected with Hepatitis C until they have progressed to advanced liver disease. This is because there are rarely any symptoms until liver damage is advanced.

Unlike Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B, there is currently no vaccination to prevent Hepatitis C. Obviously, a Hepatitis C vaccine would be a great victory for preventative medicine. The challenge to developing a Hepatitis C vaccine is multifaceted, likely involving its genetic variations (genotypes) and its ability to mutate easily.

Announced in February 2012 at the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Summit in Vancouver, Dr. Houghton revealed that his team is just five years away from creating a useable vaccine for Hepatitis C. Following previous vaccine tests funded by the National Institutes of Health that yielded promising results, Houghton cited two lingering questions:

  1. Did the vaccine recipients produce antibodies that could neutralize the actual infectious virus?
  2. If the recipients could produce neutralizing antibodies, how broad was the response?

According to Houghton, the greatest challenge to an effective Hepatitis C vaccine is finding a single compound capable of neutralizing all of the different viral strains. Using a vaccine developed and tested on humans in his University of Alberta lab, Houghton and his co-investigator John Law discovered that they could use a single strain of the virus to draw out broad, cross-neutralizing antibodies against all the different major strains.

Although seemingly minor, this step wipes out one of the biggest hurdles to developing an effective, preventative Hepatitis C vaccine.

There are still several more years of intensive study needed for Houghton’s finding to transform into an FDA-approved vaccine. Nonetheless, the progress made in this University of Alberta lab could forever change the threat of Hepatitis C – a virus that was first isolated by Dr. Michael Houghton and potentially put to rest by the same man.


http://hepatitis.about.com/od/prevention/a/HCVvaccine.htm, Why is there no vaccine for Hepatitis C?, Charles Daniel, Retrieved March 4, 2012, about.com, 2012.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2105232/Doctor-discovered-hepatitis-C-creates-vaccine-prevent-liver-damaging-disease.html, Doctor who discovered Hepatitis C creates vaccine to prevent liver disease that kills 15,000 a year in the US, Claire Bates, Retrieved March 4, 2012, Associated Newspapers, Ltd., 2012.

http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/758969 , Hepatitis C Linked to More Deaths than HIV, Yael Waknine, Retrieved March 4, 2012, WebMD, LLC, 2012.

http://www.natap.org/2012/newsUpdates/022312_01.htm, Vaccine Discovered For hep C by Michael Houghton who discovered HCV in 1989, Jamie Hanlon, Retrieved March 4, 2012, University of Alberta, 2012.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=%20The%20long%20and%20winding%20road%20leading%20to%20the%20identification%20of%20the%20hepatitis%20C%20virus, The Long and Winding Road Leading to the Identification of the Hepatitis C Virus, Houghton, M, Retrieved March 4, 2012, Journal of Hepatology, November 2009.


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