Researchers develop successful lab model for study of hepatitis C

Researchers with the Mount Sinai Medical Center showed for the first time that the hepatitis C virus can replicate in monkeys, which could result in a new animal model, the center announced on Monday.

Researchers with Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine found that HCV can replicate in macaques. The research team worked to differentiate macaque stem cells into liver cells and then tried to infect the cells with HCV in a petri dish. The differentiated cells were able to support HCV infection and replication.

The development of a new animal model could allow new avenues for scientists to develop treatments and vaccines for the disease.

"Now that we know that HCV infection in macaque cells is possible, we wanted to find out why it only worked in liver cells that were derived from stem cells," Valerie Gouon-Evans, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai, said. "By identifying where in the viral life cycle the infection is dysfunctional, we can develop an effective animal model of HCV."

The researchers determined that HCV was less efficient at entering macaque cells to initiate infection compared to human cells because of differences in a macaque form of a particular cell surface receptor. The team found the cell entry block could be overcome by expressing the human version of the receptor and that an altered virus without the requirement of the receptor significantly enhanced HCV infection.

"Our discovery shows that by manipulating either host or viral genetics we can efficiently infect macaque cells," Matthew Evans, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai, said. "These findings may open doors for the field of HCV research, lead to new animal models, and hopefully vaccines and therapies."

Evans will next try to infect macaques in vivo with the mutant HCV that uses macaque receptors. If the next step is successful, scientists could use the animal model for HCV studies and vaccine development.

The results of the study were published in Gastroenterology.