University of Birmingham researchers have discovered that the potentially-fatal hepatitis C virus evades the body's natural defences by slipping directly from cell to cell, suggesting that antibody-based treatments aimed at interrupting the virus' progression may not work as well as hoped.
While making a presentation at a Glasgow conference, the researchers said that their finding might help explain why the virus spreads rapidly in some patients.
Viruses generally enter a cell, replicate themselves, and burst out of the cell with large numbers of copies to infect another cell in the same manner.
However, some viruses can move directly between cells. "Cell to cell transmission" allows them to bypass some of the body's most potent defence systems as antibodies can only attack outside the cell.
Scientists have so far believed that the Hepatitis C virus does not have the ability to move directly between cells, but this has been disproved by the latest study that involved liver tumour cells infected with the virus.
"This is probably why it has been so tricky to tackle. Finding that Hep C uses multiple mechanisms for spreading around the body was not great news, but this discovery will allow those of us working in this area to move ahead with a better understanding of the virus," the BBC quoted Dr Jennifer Timpe, who presented the research to the International Symposium on Hepatitis C Virus in Glasgow, as saying.
"We will have to up our game and find other ways of tackling this relentless virus," she added.
The British Liver Trust has hailed Birmingham researchers' finding as a positive result for treatment solutions.
"Gaining a better understanding of the virus will certainly go some way into the development of treatment for hepatitis C patients - something which is desperately needed. At the moment approximately one in five people with a chronic infection of hepatitis C develop severe liver damage which can lead to liver cancer or liver failure and the need for liver transplantation," he said.
"These results indicate to a positive result for treatment solutions," he added.