Magazine article Science News

Changing Hepatitis C Evades Immune Systems

Magazine article Science News

Changing Hepatitis C Evades Immune Systems

Article excerpt

For the first time, researchers report that the human body produces antibodies against the hepatitis C virus. However, the rapidly mutating virus can outwit that line of defense to produce a chronic infection of the liver. The new findings hint at the difficulties in fashioning a vaccine that will shield people from multiple forms of this wily virus.

Patrizia Farci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., and her colleagues wanted to see if they could shield chimpanzees from the hepatitis C virus, a microbe that can cause a chronic inflammation of the liver.

Perhaps the least well known of the viruses that trigger this disease, hepatitis C can be spread through exposure to infected blood or body fluids, sharing needles with an infected person, and in some cases, transplantation of an infected organ (SN: 8/17/91, p.103).

The researchers reasoned that antibodies -- proteins made by specialized immune cells -- would circulate in the blood of an infected person. They therefore obtained plasma, the clear portion of blood, f rom a volunteer who had become infected with hepatitis C during a blood transfusion in 1977. (Blood is now screened for hepatitis C, and the risk of contracting the disease through a blood transfusion has declined.) The team also had access to the strain of virus infecting this patient during the acute phase of the illness.

In one experiment, the researchers injected a chimp with a strain of the acute-phase hepatitis C virus and with plasma collected from the volunteer in 1979. …

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