NIH News Release
NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH
National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, September 29, 2000
Contact:
Gregory Roa
(301) 402-1663
greg.roa@nih.gov

Hepatitis C Initiative Expands to New Centers

Applying the tools of genome analysis and other advanced technologies, a multidisciplinary scientific coalition is expanding its investigation of acute and chronic infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Largely unexplored questions, such as why African Americans respond so poorly to the current standard of care, and unresolved issues, such as how disease persists unnoticed in the body for decades, will be added to the ongoing studies of the Hepatitis C Cooperative Research Centers.

The network unites basic and clinical researchers investigating hepatitis C infection and the disease process so as to identify new and better means of prevention and treatment. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which launched the multicenter program in 1996, today announced it will expand the initiative through nearly $6 million of first-year funding distributed through nine awards.

The grants renew the four existing Centers — Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and the University of Washington in Seattle. The funding also adds two new members to the consortium: the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis and the Children's Research Institute, Ohio State University in Columbus. In addition, the initiative will fund three new separate studies conducted independently of the larger centers.

"We are pleased to continue supporting this important cross-cutting research on HCV infection, which remains a significant emerging infectious disease worldwide and one that disproportionately affects minorities in this country," says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. "Over the years these centers have yielded many important findings, and we hope to build on those accomplishments and explore new therapeutic and vaccine strategies."

HCV, first identified little more than a decade ago, is now estimated to infect about 3 percent of the world's population, including nearly 4 million Americans. It is spread primarily through contact with infected blood. The virus damages the liver slowly, often without any obvious symptoms. Indeed, many people infected with HCV can remain unaware of their condition for decades. If not treated, hepatitis C infection can result in devastating liver damage, which causes nearly 10,000 deaths and leads to about 1,000 liver transplants each year in this country alone.

"Current therapy for HCV infection is woefully inadequate, and some studies estimate that annual deaths from hepatitis C could triple over the next two decades unless we develop new, more effective interventions," says virologist Leslye Johnson, Ph.D., who is chief of NIAID's enteric and hepatic diseases branch and oversees the consortium. "We still need to understand why the virus causes disease right away in some people but takes years or decades to progress in others," she notes. Such knowledge could help researchers develop new ways to stop HCV before it causes disease or is passed on to others by people who are unaware they have the virus.

The collaboration has already contributed several advances to understanding hepatitis C. Program researchers were the first to clone a copy of HCV that infected nonhuman primates, thereby proving the virus alone is sufficient to cause the disease. Another team discovered how genetic differences in one HCV protein could help predict how well a patient might respond to the immune substance interferon, one of the standard therapies used currently. The same group developed a new laboratory assay for identifying anti-HCV compounds. Clinicians at another center discovered that the amount of virus in a patient's bloodstream was a critical factor in how fast the disease progresses.

According to Dr. Johnson, the network will retain a coordinated, multidisciplinary approach, fostering collaboration among scientists in virology, immunology, cell and tissue biology, pathogenesis, animal studies, clinical investigation and allied research. "The new initiative further encourages investigators to examine unexplored areas in hepatitis C research and to increase the application of advanced technologies that monitor the contribution of host and viral gene activity to disease progression," she says.

The consortium's basic goals are to identify components of the virus and the body's immune response as well as individual genetic factors that have a crucial impact on 1) recovery from initial and chronic infection, 2) disease progression and severity, and 3) the influence of cofactors, such as alcohol use, that amplify HCV damage.

The clinical research emphasizes studies in special populations heavily affected by HCV, such as African Americans who respond poorly to standard therapies. The centers have a mandate, Dr. Johnson notes, to apply new information and advances to develop diagnostic tools, therapies and vaccines.

Other National Institutes of Health (NIH) components providing additional support for individual centers include the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the NIH Office of Research on Minority Health.

The Hepatitis C Cooperative Research Centers are directed by the following investigators:

CALIFORNIA

OHIO

TENNESSEE

TEXAS

WASHINGTON

The following investigators will conduct individual hepatitis C research projects: Kendall A. Smith, M.D., at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City; Thomas Chambers, M.D., at Saint Louis University in Missouri; and Michael Gale, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

NIAID is a component of the NIH. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies.

Press releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.