WEDNESDAY, July 16, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- In a feat that should help researchers more effectively evaluate new treatments for hepatitis C, investigators report that they have developed the first tissue culture of regular human liver cells that can imitate infections with the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
"This is the first efficient and consistent model system for HCV to be developed," Martina Buck, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, who developed the culture, said in a university news release. "There is a need for new treatments, and for development of a possible vaccine for HCV. Now we have a model system to support work by investigators in this area."
Some 170 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C, which affects the liver. In the United States alone, some 10,000 people die from cirrhosis of the liver, and thousands more die from liver cancer associated with infection.
The virus is usually transmitted by sharing intravenous drug needles and through sexual contact.
Right now, there is no animal model to test different therapies, according to background information in a paper published in the July 16 issue of PLoS ONE.
As of now, only one treatment for hepatitis C exists, Peg-interferon alpha, a drug combination that has a response rate of about 50 percent in people infected with HCV but only about 20 percent in individuals with cirrhosis of the liver.
The therapy can also cause severe flu-like symptoms.
Researchers have so far been hampered in their efforts to understand HCV, because it hasn't been possible to infect normal human liver cells in a laboratory setting.
The new culture allows scientists to directly infect cells with virus from the blood of HCV-infected patients.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on hepatitis C.