New hope for hepatitis C sufferers

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University of Adelaide virologists Dr Michael Beard and Dr Karla Helbig will work with colleagues from the University of NSW to develop new strategies to treat and prevent hepatitis C, which infects more than 170 million people around the world.

The scientists, who are also attached to the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science and Royal Adelaide Hospital, hope to identify antiviral proteins that can be used in the fight against hepatitis C.

Currently there is no effective vaccine and the existing treatment is expensive and often causes severe side effects. The success rate also varies between 50-80% so many sufferers cannot be helped by current approaches.

The funds, awarded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), are part of a larger $17.7 million joint program grant, tackling both HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C and involving nine scientists from across Australia.

Dr Beard said this was the first Australian program grant awarded to study both HIV/AIDS and HCV/hepatitis C.

“The development of vaccines and better treatments for both these viruses are urgent global health priorities,” Dr Beard said. “This program brings together a team of researchers with skills in basic virology and immunology with experts who can translate laboratory findings into human clinical trials.”

This latest grant is an adjunct to three NHMRC project grants awarded to Dr Beard’s team in the past two years specifically for hepatitis C research.

In 2006 the virologist was awarded more than $894,000 to investigate the link between alcohol and hepatitis C, and the basic mechanisms of liver disease.

“In Australia, more than 264,000 people have been infected with the hepatitis C virus and there are approximately 10,000 new infections per year. A proportion of these are intravenous drug users, with alcohol playing a significant role in disease progression,” Dr Beard said.

He said vaccines had been trialled for HIV, but with little success. “There is antiretroviral treatment but this does not eradicate HIV, it only keeps it under control for a period of time. It is also very expensive and therefore not accessible on a global scale”.

Dr Beard said the program would provide a pipeline to develop and test vaccines and novel treatments in a timely fashion.

The nine scientists awarded the joint $17 million NHMRC program grant are from the University of Adelaide, University of NSW, University of Western Australia and University of Melbourne.

Dr Beard is an NHMRC RD Wright Research Fellow and head of the Hepatitis C Virus Research Group at the University of Adelaide and Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science.

Source: University of Adelaide, Australia

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