University of Alberta researchers making strides toward Hepatitis C vaccine

About 250,000 individuals in Canada have lived with or are currently infected with hepatitis C. Many more who live with the virus don’t even know they have it.

Hepatitis C targets the liver and can lead to liver disease and cancer. With millions of unsuspecting hepatitis B and C carriers around the world, organizers of a World Hepatitis Day event Sunday in Edmonton say awareness of the virus is more important now than ever. 

“It is important because we can do things to help these patients now,” Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, an infectious disease specialist who studies viral hepatitis at the University of Alberta, said in an interview with CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active on Friday. “We have excellent treatment for hepatitis C where virtually all people we treat are cured.”

Sunday is World Hepatitis Day. We’ll speak with some U of A researchers who are working on a vaccine for hepatitis C. 9:58

But Tyrell is hoping to take it further. The clinical researcher is part of a team, led by Dr. Michael Houghton, that wants to eradicate the disease —unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is no vaccine. 

“The World Health Organization recognizes this as one of the major medical needs that we haven’t been able to crack yet — both hepatitis C and HIV have been very hard to get good vaccines for,” said Tyrrell. 

Developing vaccine

Recruited to the University of Alberta through the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, Houghton is credited around the world as the person who led the team that discovered hepatitis C in 1989.

Houghton has produced a candidate vaccine for hepatitis C that has been tested in chimpanzees. 

“It doesn’t have absolute, 100 per cent protection but it will decrease the rate of carriers and it will decrease the number of people that will require anti-viral therapy in the future,” said Tyrrell.

The researchers need another year and a half to two years of funding before trials of the vaccine can begin on human patients. 

“It will have to be tested in animals for about six months to a year and then we can go into humans in a phase one trial,” said Tyrrell. 

In addition to possible funding from the provincial and federal governments, the researchers have interest from Italy, Germany and Australia for help with their work. 

“Alberta is one of the leading pack members in the race to find a vaccine for hepatitis C,” said Martin Pasev, Tyrrell’s summer student and the head organizer of World Hepatitis Day in Edmonton. 

The local event is taking place at West Edmonton Mall on Central Stage, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

The family-friendly event will include promotional material, with an educational colouring area for kids, said Pasev. 

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