A Hepatitis C Virus Vaccine May Be on the Horizon

Scientists from Rutgers University and other institutions recently characterized a protein on the surface of Hepatitis C virus (HCV) that may help to lead to the development of a vaccine for this debilitating virus, which affects an astounding 160 million people worldwide. Their research was published in the journal Nature on February 19.

The structure of Hepatitis C virus. The E2 protein is one of the envelope glycoproteins (protein linked to a sugar molecule) referred to in the figure, which helps the virus fuse to cells and mediates entry.

The protein, called E2, is what scientists call a viral surface protein, or a protein that is present on the outer shell of viruses. In most cases, these proteins serve to help viruses interact with receptors on human cells in order to gain entry into the cells and infect them. Learning the extensive biochemistry of these types of proteins can help scientists to better understand how viruses infect cells, and in turn can be useful for producing vaccines and other anti-viral drugs. Vaccines often utilize viral surface proteins in order to prime the immune system, so that when a person is actually infected with a virus like HCV the body already has antibodies (proteins produced by B cells in the immune system that help fight off pathogens) ready to attack the virus.

A possible vaccine is of great interest in terms of public health, due to the amount of worldwide infections and the associated health risks from infection by the virus. HCV infects hepatocytes (liver cells) and produces a chronic infection that can result in cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and cancer of the hepatocytes. Look for more studies to be produced in the near future that follow up on this research and for development of a vaccine that utilizes this new information about the E2 protein.

Article: Khan A, Whidby J, Marcotrigiano J, et al. 2014. Structure of the core ectodomain of the hepatitis C virus envelope glycoprotein 2. Nature[serial online]. Available from: MEDLINE with Full Text, Ipswich, MA.

Link: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7104/abs/nature04975.html

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