SEATTLE - University of Washington scientists have devised a unique way to grow the hepatitis C virus in the laboratory - an important step in the quest for a vaccine and improved treatment for what has become one of the most widespread infectious diseases in the world.
The researchers for the first time were able to keep the virus reproducing for at least two months, enabling it to infect liver cells, where it does its devastating work.
"We'll be able to better see what damage is done to cells, and it will provide a way to test antiviral agents ... and help develop a vaccine," said Dr. Nelson Fausto, chairman of the UW department of pathology, who directed the research.
Hepatitis C infects about 170 million people worldwide, including more than 4 million in the U.S. The virus is carried in the blood and usually is spread by contaminated needles during drug abuse. It also is spread, rarely, by sex, by an infected mother to her child or by other contact with infected blood.
The disease becomes chronic in the majority of patients. After 20 to 30 years, about one-fifth of them have liver scarring that can lead to cancer. Hepatitis C liver disease is the leading reason for patients needing a liver transplant.
Fausto and his UW colleagues used liver stem cells taken from aborted fetuses donated to research in developing the new lab culture for hepatitis C. The method will be reported in the February edition of The American Journal of Pathology.