As we have previously reported, hepatitis C is a particularly nasty virus for two reasons. The first is that it is the leading cause of chronic liver disease and liver transplants and complications related to the virus cause between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths each year. The second is that symptoms of the virus may not appear until decades after a person is infected.
The virus is spread mostly through contact with contaminated blood from dirty needles and syringes shared by intravenous drug users (60%), blood transfusions (10%), and unprotected or risky sex (15%). Contaminated equipment used for tattoos, body and ear piercing, and manicures may also spread the virus. There have also been outbreaks of the virus in medical facilities with inadequate or failed infection-control procedures. The disease affects some 170 million people worldwide.
There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C which was only discovered in 1989 and treatment is limited to a combination of two drugs which is only about 40% effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 80% of those infected never have symptoms. When symptoms such as jaundice, abdominal pain, and nausea do occur, it may not be for 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years after infection. In its later stages, the virus can cause cirrhosis of the liver and fatal end-stage liver disease requiring a liver transplant.
It is for these reasons that there is cautious optimism following the announcement that U.S. scientists have been able to create infectious hepatitis C virus in the lab for the first time. This is an extremely important since, as with all viruses, hepatitis C cannot replicate itself. Thus, researchers have been unable to observe and experiment on the virus in the lab.
The breakthrough was accomplished at Rockefeller UniversityÃs Infectious Disease Unit under the supervision of Dr. Charles Rice. The hope is that this advance will aid in the search for better treatments for the disease as well as discover of an effective vaccine.