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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 6, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 01
British researchers report progress on hepatitis C vaccine
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British researchers report progress on hepatitis C vaccine

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Researchers at Oxford University announced that they have seen 'promising results' from early clinical testing of an experimental hepatitis C vaccine.

In an article in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers said they had tried a new approach to a vaccine.

'This is very promising research' said Charles Gore, chief executive of Britain's Hepatitis C Trust.

'There has been rapid development in drugs to treat hepatitis C, but vaccine development has lagged behind. Yet, if we only treat existing infections, we will always be behind the curve.

'We badly need to improve prevention and this is an excellent step in that direction.'

Hepatitis C spreads through blood-to-blood contact, often through sharing needles. Unlike other varieties of the hepatitis virus, hepatitis C does not spontaneously clear, and often results in chronic liver disease.

According to the CDC, approximately 75%-85% of people who become infected with hepatitis C virus develop chronic infection.

While infection can be controlled with antiviral drugs, the Oxford researchers say a vaccine 'would be a major step forward.' There are effective vaccines for hepatitis A and B.

Designing a vaccine has been difficult, however, because the hepatitis C virus changes its appearance, making it hard to find something to target.

Consequently, the researchers attempted to target the inner workings of the virus, rather than the variable surface markings. Cold viruses were modified with genetic material from the hepatitis C virus in order to prime the immune system to attack the hepatitis C virus.

'That's where the engine of the virus is, where we may be able to successfully target many of the crucial pieces of machinery,' researcher Paul Klenerman said.

The aim of the first phase of clinical trials was to determine whether the treatment was safe, and to help plan future trials.

Forty-one healthy patients were given the vaccine. Scientists said it produced a 'very strong' immune response which lasted for at least a year and had no major side effects.

The next step will be to give the vaccine to people at risk of hepatitis C infection to see whether it protects against the virus.

Klenerman said he and his team were excited by the results of initial testing, but he cautioned that much more work needs to be done before a vaccine is generally available.

'The immune responses we've seen are exciting and we are beginning the next stage of trials. While we are hopeful, it could be a long road to any vaccine that protects people against hepatitis C,' he said.

According to BBC News, some 500,000 people in the U.K. may be infected with hepatitis C. The CDC estimates that 3.2 million Americans live with chronic hepatitis C infections, with 17,000 new infections annually.

The World Health Organization believes the global figure for chronic hepatitis C infection could be as high as 170 million people.

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