Breakthrough in Hepatitis C research could lead to vaccine
Researchers from Amsterdam UMC and Scripps Research in San Diego unraveled the structure of the hepatitis C virus’s spike protein. This breakthrough puts them one step closer to developing a vaccine against the virus, which can cause liver cirrhosis or liver cancer, Amsterdam UMC said in a statement on Friday.
Worldwide, about 300,000 people die yearly of hepatitis C, and 60 million people get infected. The virus progresses very slowly, only manifesting in liver damage after up to 30 years. Many people don’t even know they have hepatitis C, so the virus continues to spread through blood-to-blood contacts, like through blood transfusions.
It took the Amsterdam and San Diego researchers years to figure out what the hepatitis C virus’s spike protein looks like. “The protein is very mobile and, therefore, difficult to visualize. We have found a way to make the protein stable,” Amsterdam UMC researcher Kwinten Sliepen explained.
“We added three antibodies to the spike. Our colleagues in the United States then used advanced electron microscopes to create a 3D image of the protein with the three antibodies bound to it. This gave us a very detailed picture of how different weak interactions and two sugar molecules weakly hold the protein together. We now want to use this information to better understand the hepatitis C virus and to design a vaccine.”
The structure the researchers identified gives scientists a blueprint to work with for the vaccine, said virology professor and co-researcher Rogier Sanders. “Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine against hepatitis C yet. An important reason for this is that the virus changes quickly, and there are, therefore, countless variants that differ very much from each other.”
Sanders said that a vaccine should generate antibodies that can fight all the virus variants. “These antibodies all bind to the spike protein on the outside of the virus. It is therefore important to know what the spike protein looks like at the atomic level of vaccine design.”
Sanders added that this kind of information about the coronavirus’s spike protein was “crucial in designing the Covid-19 vaccines that are now so effective.”