UW News

February 1, 2007

UW researchers develop hepatitis C virus culture system

UW researchers have opened the way for improved study of hepatitis C virus by devising a novel virus culture system. The new system allows replication of patient-isolated virus in non-transformed hepatocytes, instead of culture-adapted virus strains in transformed cell lines. Their findings appear in the February issue of the American Journal of Pathology.

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection affects approximately 170 million people worldwide, including as many as 4 million in the United States. HCV liver disease, which may induce liver inflammation, cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma, is the leading reason for liver transplantation in much of the country.

Researchers have had difficulty studying replication of the virus within liver cells, or hepatocytes, because of inadequate virus culture systems. Those systems would allow the virus to infect other cells, but not to replicate for long periods or produce more virus. Other systems allowed scientists to study virus replication in mutated cells, which may not act like human liver cells.

In this study, Nelson Fausto, professor and chair of pathology, and his colleagues turned to a cell culture system using liver hepatocyte cells from aborted fetuses donated to science. They were able to keep the virus replicating in the culture system for two months, allowing them to monitor virus particles infecting new cells. The findings could help scientists better understand how HCV replicates in hepatocytes, the natural target of the virus, and might aid in the development of a vaccine for the virus.