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VIRAL PUSHBACK: CU med school researchers reveal new hepatitis C secrets that could lead to treatment

“Viruses like hepatitis C are really good at developing resistance,” Kieft said. “They find ways to get around current therapies, so I think there’s always going to be a need to bring new therapies to market.”

AURORA | Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine have made new discoveries in the detailed behavior of hepatitis C — findings that could eventually lead to new treatments for the disease.

Their findings were published Dec. 23 online in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. The research team showed that the hepatitis C virus RNA molecule manipulates the cell’s ribosome, or protein-making

Dr. Jeffrey Kieft, an associate professor at the CU medical school’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, sets up a fractionation system that was used to purify ribosomes during Keift’s Hepatitis C molecular research Dec. 28 at Anschutz Medical Campus. Kieft along with other researchers figured out how the hepatitis C virus takes over an invaded cell, a breakthrough that could point to way for new treatments for the virus. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

machinery, in a way that scientists were previously unaware of. And, that mutating a specific part of the virus can affect the function of the RNA in a way that might prohibit the virus from successfully replicating itself.

The research, led by Jeffrey Kieft, Ph.D. and associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, identified specific weaknesses in the virus that could eventually help lead the way to the development of future drugs.

“Viruses like hepatitis C are really good at developing resistance,” Kieft said. “They find ways to get around current therapies, so I think there’s always going to be a need to bring new therapies to market.”

Hepatitis C is an infectious disease that leads to liver problems and infects about 2 percent to 3 percent of the world’s adult population, Kieft said. It’s the leading cause of liver transplantation in the U.S., he said. Kieft has been studying hepatitis C since 1998. His lab at the University of Colorado School of Medicine includes nine researchers. The team’s research in viruses such as hepatitis C is an important first step in successfully treating those diseases, he said.

“It illustrates a point that you need people like myself and my lab that are really at the front end of discovering new things the virus is doing, then we can team up with or provide information for other people to start thinking about what a drug would look like,” he said.

Megan Filbin, who graduated from Rangeview High School in Aurora in 2001, was also involved in the research project. Filbin has been researching hepatitis C for more than five years and graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado School of Medicine this past May. She started researching the virus at a time when there were no directed drugs available to combat it. In 2011, two drugs were introduced to the market that targeted hepatitis C specifically and had about a 70 percent success rate of completely eliminating the virus, she said. However, she said, hepatitis C is still a “relevant health risk across the world.”

“You can be infected and not realize it for up to 30 years,” she said. “It’s kind of scary — you don’t necessarily feel sick and nothing shows on the outside, so lots of people don’t even know they have it.”

Working with researchers of a lab at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia, she found that the virus needs to alter the ribosome in a specific way in order to replicate itself. She also found that a mutation in the virus would impact the ribosome and cause it to stall before it started making the virus’ proteins, which could prohibit its movement on the RNA, decreasing viral replication. “For us, it was really just trying to figure out how the virus works,” he said.

She hopes her research could someday help other researchers or pharmaceutical companies come up with a drug that will have a higher success rate at eliminating the virus. Filbin is currently continuing her research at the Janelia Farm Research Campus, and Kieft and his team will continue studying hepatitis C and RNA in emerging viruses including West Nile and Dengue fever.

“We’re looking at some RNA’s that are really important for the virus to successfully infect, and studying ways to prevent that,” he said.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or sara@aurorasentinel.com.

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