Hepatitis breakthrough at University of Alberta

SASKATOON (CUP) 8212; University of Alberta researchers have pioneered a breakthrough in the fight against hepatitis C.

It has long been known that the disease attacks the liver, causing insulation and cirrhosis of the liver, and eventually liver cancer if left long enough. However, after just under two years of research, Christopher Power’s team of researchers have discovered that hepatitis C is also a disease of the brain.

“We’ve known for a long time patients who have hepatitis C have symptoms of poor concentration, poor memory, sense of apathy, fatigue 8212; pointing to problems with the brain as well,” said Power.

This discovery could lead to new forms of treatment and, possibly, to the development of a vaccine or even a cure, said Power.

Studies done on groups of hepatitis C sufferers have shown that 15 per cent of people infected with the virus show qualitative levels of difficulty with concentration and memory, according to Power. For a symptom to reach a qualitative level it must be measurable by those observing a study group member rather than being self-reported. Qualitative results are more scientifically rigorous than quantitative findings.

Power said the two questions he and his team set out to answer were: Does hepatitis C affect the brain, and if so, what are the consequences?

The group succeeded in infecting human brain cells with hepatitis C in experiments, which had never been done before. The cells in questions are glia cells, which Power called the “maintenance cells” of the brain.

Glia cells are similar to blood cells. Because Hep C is spread through infected blood, Power said this is “not a big conceptual jump” biologically.

After discovering that the virus can take up residence in the brain, Power’s team set out to ascertain the significance of this. Specifically, they wanted to find out how the presence of the hepatitis C virus in the brain would affect memory, concentration and even motor skills.

The team discovered that viral proteins, like those the hepatitis C virus is composed of, are toxic to neurons. They are the brain cells responsible for thinking, emotion and many other integral human behaviours. “That has never been shown before,” Power said.

Viral proteins attack neurons’ ability to destroy unwanted molecules, a process known autophagy. This process is essential to neuronal operation.

“When they can’t perform that,” Power explained, “they’re in trouble. They can’t get rid of excess debris.”

This debris makes it difficult for neurons to function properly and eventually kills the cells, which causes the memory and concentration problems present in many hepatitis C patients.

Power said the importance of his team’s research is “two-fold: It raises awareness of brain problems in people with hep C infection. Neurological problems are often ignored in people with other medical problems. “It also provides some understanding for moving forward to develop new treatments to stop the virus getting into the brain, or maybe even to develop a vaccine 8212; a vaccine would be great.”

Power added that his research is a small step on the road to developing a vaccine, and that he can’t say how long that will take because his focus is not on that area of research. “There are many groups actively looking into that; it’s a very hot area of research,” he said.

Hepatitis C, which infects 170 million people globally and at least 250,000 people in Canada, is spread through blood-to-blood contact with infected blood. It is not found in water or food. The virus is commonly spread through drug paraphernalia such as needles and straws, as well as through the sharing of items such as razors with an infected person.

“Although the risk of [hepatitis C] transmission sexually is very low, it is not absent,” the Public Health Agency of Canada explained. It is not listed as a sexually transmitted infection.

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