Feb. 16, 2012 A University of Alberta researcher and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology has made the discovery of a vaccine that will potentially help combat hepatitis C. Michael Houghton, who led the team that discovered the hepatitis C virus in 1989, announced his findings at the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Summit in Vancouver this afternoon. Currently, there are no vaccines against the disease available.
Houghton, also the Li Ka Shing Chair in Virology at the University of Alberta, says the vaccine, developed from a single strain, has shown to be effective against all known strains of the virus. It took more than 10 years to develop and started while he was working for the drug company Novartis. Following previous vaccine tests funded by the National Institutes of Health that yielded promising results, he said there remained two critical questions.
"Did the recipients actually produce antibodies that could neutralize the actual infectious virus," he said, "and if they could, how broad was the neutralizing response?"
The challenge, Houghton said, was that hepatitis C is more virulent than HIV, thus coming up with a vaccine that would neutralize the different strains around the world was believed to be impossible. Using a vaccine developed and tested on humans in his University of Alberta lab, Houghton and his co-investigator John Law discovered that the vaccine was capable of eliciting broad cross-neutralising antibodies against all the different major strains. Houghton says that this finding bodes good news for those with hep C and those who live or travel to areas where the disease is prevalent.
"This tells us that a vaccine made from a single strain can indeed neutralize all the viruses out there," says Houghton. "It really encourages the further development of that vaccine. This is a really a big step forward for the field of HCV vaccinology."
With hundreds of thousands of people being infected with hepatitis C annually, and with between 20 to 30 per cent of those developing some form liver disease, this announcement brings hope. However, Houghton cautions that further testing is required, meaning that it may be five to seven years before the vaccine receives approval. And while it may make some difference in those currently suffering from hepatitis C, it is mainly a preventative measure against acquiring the disease.
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