New Study Launched to Discover How “Super” Immune System Can Prevent Hepatitis C

The scientists will seek the genetic basis for resistance to the virus (HCV). They invite all women who received HCV-contaminated anti-D in 1977-79 to volunteer.

Scientists from Trinity College Dublin are seeking volunteers who were exposed to anti-D contaminated with hepatitis C virus (HCV) between 1977 and 1979 as they attempt to discover why some people are naturally protected from HCV infection, while others are not.

In 1977-79, hundreds of Irish women fell victim to HCV infection when they were given virus-contaminated anti-D. Usually anti-D is a blood product of great benefit given to women with blood groups incompatible with their new-born baby. It prevents the mother from building cells and molecules that would attack and destroy the foetus during a second pregnancy. Hence, it saves the life of the unborn child that would otherwise become ill or perhaps die.

However, in 1977-79 this normally beneficial product was unknowingly contaminated with HCV, which can invade and gradually destroy the liver. Until recently, researchers believed that receiving HCV-contaminated blood products, where high viral loads directly enter the blood stream, would inevitably lead to infection.

But in the aftermath of the 1977-79 outbreak, researchers made an interesting discovery: when screened for HCV almost half of the women who clearly had contact with the virus showed no signs of infection.

Professor of Comparative Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, Cliona O’Farrelly, said: “That means these women must have been naturally protected from the virus. We believe these women have an extra-special ‘super’ immune system that is able to fight viral invaders. We now want to find out why – and how – this system does such a good job.”

To do this, Professor O’Farrelly and her team will look at the information stored within the genes of naturally resistant people. The team will then compare it to the information from the genes of people who are unable to resist infection. If they uncover the mechanism behind the mystery of natural HCV-resistance, they can exploit this knowledge to find new ways to make vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

For this research project, the team seek volunteers who were exposed to HCV via contaminated anti-D in 1977-79 to help with the study. Women who became infected with HCV as well as those who show no signs of infection are invited to participate. Participation in the study is easy, and non-invasive, but could have a major impact on fighting viruses. All that is needed is a saliva sample, which can be easily collected at home and mailed to the team.