Hepatitis C Research Gets the Boost It Needed

Researchers have struggled to grow the hepatitis C virus (HCV) in a clinical lab setting since its discovery in 1989. However, a recent discovery about HCV genetics may have just changed that.

Researchers have struggled to grow the hepatitis C virus (HCV) in a clinical lab setting since its discovery in 1989. However, a recent discovery about HCV genetics may have just changed that.

Since HCV has not been able to be sufficiently replicated in a lab, understanding of the virus and development of treatments have taken a hit. Lead author Charles M. Rice, PhD, and colleagues from The Rockefeller University hypothesized that the cultured cells were missing at least one factor needed to replicate. As documented in Nature, they aimed to identify those missing components and replicate the virus.

“Being able to easily culture HCV in the lab has many important implications for basic science research,” Rice, Maurice R. and Corrine P. Greenberg Professor in Virology and head of the Laboratory of Virology and Infectious Disease, said in a news release.

Previous research showed that modified forms of HCV was unable to be replicated due to adaptive mutations. Using a library of 7,000 human genes, the team screened them to identify the expression associated with non-mutated HCV which allowed for replication. Expression of the SEC14L2 gene resulted in virus replication — even when using engineered cells. This indicates “that SEC14L2 promotes HCV infection by enhancing vitamin E-mediated protection against lipid peroxidation,” the authors explained. The reason why this happens is not totally clear, but it seems that the protein expressed by SEC14L2 stops the interaction between lipids and dangerous reactive oxygen species, thus, preventing HCV from replicating.

“Practically speaking, this means that if scientists want to study HCV from an infected patient, it’s now possible to take a blood sample, inoculate the engineered cells, and grow that patient’s form of the virus in the lab,” said first author Mohsan Saeed, a postdoc in Rice’s laboratory.

The need for new HCV treatments is becoming increasingly apparent since more drug-resistant forms of the virus continue to emerge. Although there is a lot still poorly understood about HCV, such as its relationships with the immune system and liver cells, this research serves as a jumping off point to making those discoveries. In addition, it can give insight to how other diseases operate.

“Having a cell culture system where patient isolates can be grown and tested for resistance or susceptibility to alternative antiviral drug combinations should be useful for optimizing re-treatment strategies for those that fail treatment,” Saeed said.