A major breakthrough in the fight against hepatitis C has been made by a team of scientists.
Researchers have discovered the viral infection stuns the body's immune system and stops white blood cells from fighting back.
The team, from Trinity College Dublin, is now looking at developing a drug that would be able to stop hepatitis C from hijacking the enzyme.
Dr Aideen Long, who led the three-year study by PhD student Danijela Petrovic, said they were delighted years of work paid off.
"What we have found, the hepatitis C virus is able to get in to the host and block their immune system from working," said the senior lecturer.
"It does that by a protein on its coat that punches against the body's white blood cells and stops them making cytokines, which drive and regulate the immune system.
"What we have to do now is identify a way of stopping the virus hijacking this enzyme. If we can stop that we can reverse the effects the virus has and let the immune system do its work."
The hepatitis C infection is a major cause of liver disease.
While sufferers can have no signs of illness for many years, up to 20% with chronic infection will develop cirrhosis of the liver over a 20 to 25 year period.
Approximately 1,700 people in Ireland have become infected with the virus through contaminated blood and blood products. Drug users sharing needles are also at high risk of contracting the disease.
Provisional figures show 1,282 people were diagnosed with hepatitis C last year, with 1,259 in 2009. So far this year 586 new cases of the disease have been reported to the Health Service Protection Centre.
The research, conducted alongside professors at Trinity and the University of Birmingham, identified a protein produced by the hepatitis C virus (called E2) that traps an important enzyme (called protein kinase C beta) in a compartment in the cell membrane where it is unable to carry out its role in the regulation of secretion.
"If we can identify ways of reversing this inhibition, we could potentially produce new ways of treating hepatitis C virus by allowing the body's immune response to do the work," added Dr Long.
Recently published in the leading US journal Hepatology, it was supported by the Higher Education Authority, the Health Research Board and the Wellcome Trust.
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