Hepatitis C vaccine on horizon

By Emily Fasold

Researchers at the University of Alberta have come one step closer to developing a preventative vaccine against all major strains of the hepatitis C virus, an accomplishment that was considered impossible until recently.

The research was led by Michael Houghton, a virology professor at the university who discovered the virus in 1989. He and his colleagues tested the vaccine on 60 people and found that many made cross-neutralizing antibodies that were able to combat all of the major global strains of the hepatitis C virus, otherwise known as HCV.

Houghton said that the discovery was a “pleasant surprise” because most vaccines can only protect against one strain of a virus. But so far, his model has been successful in combatting all varieties.

Although Houghton and former colleagues at the Vaccines and Diagnostics division of Novartis an international drug manufacturer that owns rights to the vaccine, have been working on it for approximately 10 years, this is the first time it has been able to neutralize various strains.

“This is very promising, [and] I’m optimistic now that a [universal] vaccine can be made,” Houghton said. “If this vaccine goes through Phase Two and Three of testing, it will prevent a huge amount of mortality and morbidity around the world.”

According to the World Health Organization’s website, hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by HCV. Some only experience a mild and short-lived bout of illness, but every year 130–170 million people worldwide develop a chronic infection that often leads to severe liver disease.

The infection is spread through exposure to infected blood, most commonly through tainted drug needles. Seventy-five percent of patients exhibit no immediate symptoms, allowing them to unknowingly spread the disease at alarming rates.

“In the U.S., there are around 20,000 new infections annually, so each year a couple thousand people are getting infected and will eventually develop severe liver disease,” Houghton said. “Hopefully our vaccine will prevent that.”

His research partner John Law said HCV is similar to HIV and AIDS because it is able to mutate quickly and exists in various genotypes, making it difficult to vaccinate.

“Hepatitis C is tricky because there are so many subtypes,” Law said. “But the results we’ve seen are very promising, and I believe this will successfully move forward.”

Before its approval, the vaccine will need to undergo Phase Two and Phase Three trial testing, which researchers expect will take between five and seven years. Although the vaccine looks promising, experts are cautioning that much more work must be done before it is made available to the public.

“I think it’s too early to comment on because the study was tested on such a small group,” said Dr Binu John, a physician who specializes in hepatology at the Celeveland Clinic. “It’s promising, but we have a long way to go.”

Dr. Phyllis Ritchie, an infectious disease specialist in Portland, Ore., agrees that if approved, the vaccine could eliminate expensive and difficult treatment.

“[The vaccine] looks promising and I am very hopeful,” she said.“This would have a huge impact on people worldwide because so many people in the U.S. alone are infected with the disease.”