In a way, you can’t help respecting HCV, otherwise known as infectious hepatitis C. You would be hard-pressed to find another virus with equal cunning!
Talented researchers all over the world have tried for decades to design a vaccine for HCV (hepatitis C), unfortunately in vain. Therefore, HCV – a virus that is transmitted through blood and can, eventually, cause diseases such as liver cancer and cirrhosis of the liver – continues to spread. In wealthy countries, it is rife among injecting drug addicts, whereas hospital hygiene is one of the main causes of its spread in poorer regions of the world.
Associate Professor Jannick Prentø explains that one probable reason for our failure to design a vaccine for HCV is the ability of some of the proteins on the surface of the virus to take on a variety of shapes:
‘This makes it difficult to work out how the virus infects us by penetrating our cells.’
Jannick Prentø has been focusing on HCV for a number of years, and today he works at CO-HEP, a hepatitis research partnership between the University of Copenhagen and Hvidovre Hospital.
He is also one of the nine exceptionally talented young researchers who will receive a Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship in 2020, giving him the opportunity to establish his own research group. This group will spend the next five years focusing hard on gaining a better understanding of the HCV virus’s extraordinary ability to change shape.
This insight is essential in order to be able to construct an HCV vaccine that stimulates the body’s own production of antibodies to prevent the virus from infecting a person by penetrating their cells. And Jannick Prentø explains that we are in desperate need of such a vaccine:
‘At least 70 million people are infected with HCV worldwide. In Denmark, the number is 20,000. A few million new cases are added to this number every year, and, globally, the disease is the cause of around 400,000 deaths a year.’
HCV can be treated if it is detected in time. However, the treatment has side effects and it is extremely expensive. Its price alone makes it unavailable to the majority of those infected worldwide. Jannick Prentø adds that, on top of this, you can have the virus for years without suffering any symptoms:
‘This is yet another cunning aspect of the virus: It’s usually detected so late that it has already caused irreparable damage. Many of these cases could be prevented if we succeed in developing a prophylactic HCV vaccine.’
One of Jannick Prentø’s tasks in his attempt to map the details of HCV’s ability to change shape will be to study a protein that sits on the surface of the virus particles. Until now, researchers have only been able to study small fractions of this protein. However, Jannick and his colleagues have developed a method to isolate the protein in its full length. This will provide better scope for understanding how the virus avoids the body’s antibodies, enabling it to penetrate the cells. Jannick Prentø says:
‘This is the knowledge we need if we’re to design a vaccine for HCV.’