Any Inflammation of the liver is called Hepatitis. The disease can be caused by a variety of factors including alcohol abuse, fungal toxins or medication overdosing. In addition to these factors, Viruses very frequently trigger a Hepatitis.
Currently, five Hepatitis Viruses are known: Hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. These Viruses are not related to each other, but cause a similar, rather nonspecific clinical picture: loss of appetite, fatigue and malaise. One conspicuous symptom of Hepatitis is jaundice that leads to discoloration of the eyes and skin. Since the characteristic jaundice is not manifested in all cases, the Hepatitis is not always recognised. If the body's defence system fails to fight the Viruses, it develops into a chronic Hepatitis. In the absence of treatment, the patient faces the prospect of severe liver damage up to liver cirrhosis or even liver cell cancer in the long-term. Chronic infections by the Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C virus are amongst the most common causes of liver cancer, which makes them one of the most common reasons for a liver transplantation. Globally, some 400 million people are afflicted by Hepatitis B or C. Each year, viral hepatitis kills 1.4 million people.
Hepatitis is one of the most common infectious diseases on a global level. According to estimates of the World Health Organization, more than 2 billion people have experienced an Infection by HBV. Currently, more than 240 million people are chronically infected by HBV, and approximately 686,000 people die of the disease each year. A protective vaccination against Hepatitis B is available and has been part of the vaccination programme for neonates in Germany since 1995. This Vaccine consists of a non-infectious part of the virus, a viral surface Protein that can be produced by yeast cells that have been reprogrammed by genetic engineering. Scientists of the HZI working with Ursula Rinas in cooperation with colleagues in India have described a particularly effective, and therefore inexpensive, method in a freely accessible scientific journal. This information can be utilised for vaccine production even in countries with a less well-developed healthcare system.
There is no HCV vaccination available yet. In their search for a Vaccine, HZI researchers from the "Vaccinology" department of Prof Carlos Guzmán are working on a mouse model of Hepatitis C, since mice are not actually susceptible to this virus. Guzmán's work has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Adapting mice to the Hepatitis C virus is also a focus of the research group of Prof Thomas Pietschmann, a virologist at the TWINCORE. The researchers from Hanover also take an interest in the durability of the virus on different surfaces. Pietschmann's staff member, Dr Eike Steinmann, has already won several research awards for his investigations of this topic. The scientists at the TWINCORE are also searching for new agents against HCV: They recently discovered ladanein, a plant substance, that is a promising candidate.
(Dr Jan Grabowski)