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National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
http://www.niaid.nih.gov

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, April 17, 2003
2:00 p.m Eastern Time

Media Contact:
Anne A. Oplinger
(301) 402-1663
niaidnews@niaid.nih.gov
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Key to Hepatitis Virus Persistence Found

Scientists at two Texas universities have discovered how hepatitis C virus thwarts immune system efforts to eliminate it. The finding, published online today in ScienceExpress, could lead to more effective treatments for liver disease caused by hepatitis C virus, says author Michael Gale, Jr., Ph.D., of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Dr. Gale and coauthor Stanley Lemon, M.D., of University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, are grantees of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

“Persistent hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is a major cause of liver disease worldwide and is the leading reason for liver transplants in this country,” notes NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “The most prevalent form of HCV in the United States is, unfortunately, the least responsive to available treatments. Moreover, African Americans are even less responsive to therapy than Caucasians,” he adds.

The immune system has many ways to detect and fight off invading microbes, and microbes have just as many ways to elude and disarm immune system components. Through a series of experiments on cells grown in the laboratory, Drs. Gale and Lemon defined the strategy HCV uses to evade the host’s immune response. As HCV begins to replicate in its human host, it manufactures enzymes, called proteases, which it requires to transform viral proteins into their functional forms. The Texas investigators determined that one viral protease, NS3/4A, specifically inhibits a key immune system molecule, interferon regulatory factor-3 (IRF-3). IRF-3 orchestrates a range of antiviral responses. Without this master switch, antiviral responses never begin, and HCV can gain a foothold and persist in its host.

Next, the scientists searched for ways to reverse the IRF-3 blockade. They applied a protease inhibitor to human cells containing modified HCV. This prevented the virus from making functional NS3/4A and restored the cells’ IRF-3 pathway. Follow-up studies have shown that once restored, the immune response reduced viral levels to nearly undetectable levels within days, according to Dr. Gale.

The identification of this viral protease-regulated control of IRF-3 opens new avenues in both clinical and basic research on hepatitis C, notes Dr. Gale. Until now, scientists had not considered the possibility that inhibiting this protease did anything more than halt viral replication. “Now that we know NS3/4A inhibition essentially restores the host’s immune response to the virus, we can assess hepatitis drug candidates for this ability as well,” Dr. Gale says.

NS3/4A will be a valuable tool in further dissecting the roles of viral proteases and their host cell targets, says Dr. Gale. For example, the scientists plan to use NS3/4A to hunt for the still unknown host cell enzyme responsible for activating IRF-3. Conceivably, Dr. Gale explains, future therapeutic approaches to viral disease could involve boosting the activity of any key host enzymes that are found.

“Understanding the tricks that the hepatitis C virus employs to impair the immune system represents an important advance with potential implications for successful cure of those suffering from liver disease,” says Leslye Johnson, Ph.D., chief of NIAID’s enteric and hepatic diseases branch.

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References:


E Foy et al. Regulation of interferon regulatory factor-3 by the hepatitis C virus serine protease. Science, April 17, 2003. DOI 10.1126/science.1082604.
(The paper will be available online at www.scienceexpress.org on April 17, 2003.)


NIAID conducts and supports research—at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide—to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at www.niaid.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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Important note: Information on this page was accurate at the time of publication. This page is no longer being updated.
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Last Updated April 17, 2003