Progress reported on hepatitis C vaccine

European researchers are a step closer to creating a new vaccine against hepatitis C after successful testing in animal trials.

HCV is a contagious and debilitating disease that can lead to cancer and liver failure. There is currently no human vaccine against HCV, which can be spread through contaminated blood. Approximately 350,000 people die from the infection every year, according to AFP.

There are an estimated 170 million people living with chronic illness directly related to HCV. At least 10 million of those are thought to be intravenous users of illegal drugs who have contracted HCV through the use of shared needles or other drug paraphernalia.

"Without rapid intervention to contain the spread of the disease, the death rate from hepatitis C is estimated to surpass that from AIDS in the next century," the researchers said, AFP reports.

Unlike hepatitis A or B, most people are unable to rid themselves of HCV because, when under attack from the immune system, the infection can change into a stronger variant. The body is usually unable to produce enough neutralizing antibodies capable of handling a broad array of mutations.

The classic technique of making a vaccine, which works well in inducing the immune system to make such antibodies, does not work well with HCV because of side effects and infection risks.

The new vaccine, created by a team lead by researchers from the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, uses virus-like particles instead of a weakened form of the original virus. Virus-like particles provoke an immune reaction, but do not contain any genetic material that would give the virus a chance to multiply.

"Once injected into the body, the virus-like particles have the capacity to trigger neutralizing antibodies that could protect a person if they are exposed to the virus," the researchers said, according to AFP.

The technique using virus-like particles has already been used with some success on the human papillomavirus, another cancer-causing disease.

The new vaccine, developed with support from the biopharmaceutical company Epixis, worked against five variants of HCV in mice and monkeys, offering the hope that it could potentially function well as the disease mutates.