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Local researchers attempting to tackle hepatitis C

Rex Barber • Jul 4, 2012 at 9:02 AM

There could one day be a vaccine for the hepatitis C virus thanks to research by two physician scientists at East Tennessee State University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home.

Dr. Zhi Q. Yao and Dr. Jonathan P. Moorman received a $1.4 million National Institutes of Health grant to study hepatitis C.

“It is a very difficult virus to treat and it is probably the number one cause of cirrhosis in this country,” Moorman said.

Hepatitis C is very common with about 4 million people carrying the virus, but most people who have the virus do not know it.

“This virus, it wants to live in you as long as possible,” Moorman said. “And it’s adapted and figured out how.”

The treatment for hepatitis C is hard on patients and can be very expensive, so Moorman and Yao want to figure out how to better treat patients.

Yao said some of the side effects of treatment for hepatitis C include flu-like symptoms, depression or worsening depression and bone marrow suppression.

“So it’s kind of like chemotherapy,” Moorman said.

Fifty percent of hepatitis C patients will not be cured using the standard drugs for treating the virus. The hope is that Moorman and Yao’s research will lead to a vaccine.

“A lot of the stuff we do is going to be really important for vaccine development,” Yao said.

Some people kick the virus on their own, Moorman said, which means a vaccine could be possible. Moorman and Yao want to know why that is, so they will be studying something called monocytes that function at the beginning of an infection. Something in hepatitis C prevents the monocytes from reacting appropriately to the virus, allowing it to thrive.

This inhibiting of the body’s immune system can lead to diseases usually prevented, including cancer.

“It (hepatitis C) causes a lot of problems to the immune system,” Moorman said.

Yao, an associate professor of internal medicine at ETSU’s College of Medicine, is the director of the hepatitis program at the VAMC and the principal investigator on the project. Moorman is the co-investigator on the project and chief of infectious diseases at the VAMC and a professor of internal medicine at the College of Medicine and its division chief of infectious diseases.

Yao pointed out that without the cooperation of veterans who receive treatment at Mountain Home, this research would not be possible.

Moorman agreed.

“We give the veterans really good care and we’re able to do state-of-the-art research that other people really don’t do,” he said.

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