Gene discovery could change treatment for hepatitis C

While vaccines exist to guard against both hepatitis A and B, there is currently no vaccine available to thwart hepatitis C, which targets the liver and can cause tissue scarring and, if left untreated, cirrhosis.

What makes treatment so difficult is that hep C can go unnoticed in patients for years--plus, the virus changes its appearance, making it challenging for scientists to find something to target.

But a vaccine may not be far off on the horizon, as scientists at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, have discovered a gene that interferes with the clearance of hepatitis C infection. The researchers also pinpointed an inherited variant of this gene, interferon lambda 4 (IFNL4), that predicts how people respond to treatment for hepatitis C infection. The study results were published online in Nature Genetics.

People of African ancestry do not respond as well to current hepatitis C treatments compared with those of European or Asian ancestry, so a new treatment option could be a boon to these patients.

Merck ($MRK) spinoff Okairos is also working to develop a hep C vaccine and reported findings this month showing that, in genetic trials, the vaccine mimicked an immune response similar to that seen in people with a strong natural immunity to the virus.

Hepatitis C has become a huge area of interest in drug research recently, and the success of Vertex's ($VRTX) new hep C pill Incivek is propelling hopes for other treatments that could be paired with drugs in future combinations.

- here's the release
- read the Nature Genetics abstract

Special Report: Hep C pill race report 2012: Gilead, others rush toward pharma gold