Researchers Step Up Search for Hepatitis C Vaccine

December 17, 2015
Bill Schu

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have identified a new approach that may soon lead to the discovery of a vaccine to treat the hepatitis C virus.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have identified a new approach that may soon lead to the discovery of a vaccine to treat the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The approach was detailed in a recent paper in Physical Biology.

More than 170 million people worldwide have HCV, and as many as 350,000 die per year from complications arising out of HCV infection. Over the past few years, there has been a revolution in HCV treatment, with medications that amount to a cure. But vaccination would combat two significant lingering challenges: the high cost of current pharmacologic treatment, and the difficulty in identifying and correctly diagnosing the condition. Yet, despite two decades of research into the virus, an effective vaccine has yet to be developed.

The researchers are hoping to change that through a data mining and computational approach that uses “spin glass” models from statistical physics. The model is borrowed from work used to describe the behavior of magnets and fluids. Applied to HCV, the goal is to chart the effects of manipulating certain proteins and antigens that constitute the virus.

“These landscapes explicitly connect viral genotype to phenotypic fitness, and reveal vulnerable immunological targets within the viral proteome that can be exploited to rationally design vaccine immunogens,” the researchers said. “We have recovered the empirical fitness landscape for the HCV RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (protein NS5B) responsible for viral genome replication, and validated the predictions of our model by demonstrating excellent accord with experimental measurements and clinical observations.”

The approach has yielded a target base of 86 optimal formulations that target the virus’ vulnerabilities. If that still sounds like a high number of possible suspects, consider that the original suspect pool in HCV was around 17 million.

“By identifying a small number of promising vaccine candidates within the vast search space of possible designs, our computational approach can guide experimental vaccine development and massively accelerate the search for a hepatitis C vaccine,” the study authors noted.

The authors noted that they “anticipate that with increasing computational power and reducing sequencing costs, it will soon become feasible within the coming years to apply our technology to the complete HCV proteome and perform rational in silico design of a complete anti-HCV immunogen.”