Bad Blood Print
Written by Justin Reedy   
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Bad Blood
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How the UW Helped Defeat Hepatitis B
For many years, hepatitis B was one of the most prevalent infectious diseases in the United States, attacking about a quarter-million people each year in the 1980s. The virus is transmitted through the blood, and can be spread through risky behavior like unprotected sex or the sharing of dirty needles, or can be passed from mother to child during birth.

Like today’s outbreak of hepatitis C, the hepatitis B virus spread relatively easily, and treatment options were not always successful. The virus harms people through either an acute or chronic infection, in each case striking the liver. As the virus spread here in the United States and around the world, a protective vaccine seemed the best bet for stopping the disease.

However, scientists had been relying on the blood of infected people to create a vaccine for hepatitis B. This led to concerns that it might contain new strains of the virus that slipped past purification methods, and could inadvertently infect the people who were being vaccinated. Scientists also needed far more blood plasma than was available to create enough vaccines for people at risk.

Meanwhile, at the University of Washington, geneticist Ben Hall and post-doc Gustav Ammerer were studying a seemingly unrelated topic: how yeast cells used genetic information to perform basic processes. Hall and his colleagues and a company called Genentech discovered a way to insert genetic information for a human protein into the yeast cell, and get the yeast to produce that protein (see “Rising to the Occasion,” March 1994).

The groundbreaking achievement allowed scientists to turn yeast cells into miniature biochemical factories, churning out copy after copy of human proteins like interferon and insulin.

Hall and his colleagues then used the method to get yeast cells to produce something called a surface antigen for hepatitis B. This superficial coating on the cell makes the human body think it is encountering the hepatitis B virus, so it mounts an immune response to the cells, which are actually harmless. This response then vaccinates the body from future hepatitis B infections.

Hall’s work has led to many other biomedical advances, but has already made a huge impact on hepatitis B. New infections in the U.S. have dropped from about 250,000 per year in the 1980s to only about 60,000 per year today.  The UW has received more than $87 million in royalties since 1990 as millions of lives around the world have been saved through the prevention of new infections.—Justin Reedy