The discovery of two 'Achilles' heels' within the potentially fatal hepatitis C virus (HCV) has given hope for the development of an effective vaccine and treatment against it.
A team of medical researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) led by Professor Andrew Lloyd and Associate Professor Peter White studied individuals at high risk of HCV infection, including a number identified within a few weeks of the onset of infection.
Using a new technique, called next generation deep sequencing and sophisticated computer analytics, the team was able to identify the "founder" virus responsible for the initial infection and then track changes within the virus as it was targeted by the immune system.
"We discovered that hepatitis C has not one but two 'Achilles' heels' that provide opportunities for vaccine development," said Dr Fabio Luciani, from UNSW's Inflammation and Infection Research Centre and the research team's biostatistician.
"If we can help the immune system to attack the virus at these weak points early on, then we could eliminate the infection in the body completely," he said.
Team member and virologist Dr Rowena Bull said the discovery of the weakest links meant vaccine researchers could now focus their attentions on the most likely avenues for success.
"The first weak point was identified at transmission, when the virus has to survive the transfer from one individual to another," Dr Bull said.
"The second weakness, and surprise finding, was the significant drop in the diversity of the viral variants in each individual studied, occurring about three months after transmission, around the time where the immune system is starting to combat the virus. A lower number of variants means the virus is easier to target," she stated.
Study leader Professor Lloyd said the discoveries were significant because of their potential to overcome longstanding barriers to hepatitis C vaccine development.
A paper describing the breakthrough appears in the leading scientific journal in the field of virology, PLoS Pathogens.