Using a new technique called next generation deep sequencing and sophisticated computer analytics the team, led by Professor Andrew Lloyd, were able to identify the 'founder' virus responsible for the initial infection and then track changes within the virus as it was targeted by the immune system.
"We discovered that hepatitis C has not one but two 'Achilles' heels' that provide opportunities for vaccine development," said Doctor Fabio Luciani, from UNSW's Inflammation and Infection Research Centre.
"If we can help the immune system to attack the virus at these weak points early on, then we could eliminate the infection in the body completely," he said.
Hepatitis C virus infection is a global pandemic with more than 120 million people infected worldwide, including some 200,000 Australians. The virus causes progressive liver disease leading to cirrhosis, liver failure and cancer. Current antiviral treatments are arduous, costly, and only partially effective.
Lloyd said the discoveries were significant because of their potential to overcome longstanding barriers to hepatitis C vaccine development.
"To date hepatitis C has been difficult to target with single interventions because there are many different strains of the virus," he said. "In addition, like HIV, the hepatitis C virus mutates very rapidly and exists as a complex family of mutated viruses within every infected individual, meaning the virus can avoid efforts by the immune system to keep it under control," Lloyd said.
MEDICA.de; Source: University of New South Wales, Australia