One of their findings is that a protein called NS4B is actively involved in binding some of the genetic material, or RNA, and thus allows the virus to duplicate.
The researchers have also discovered that an obsolete anti-itching drug clemizole hydrochloride could obstruct the protein, leading to a tenfold decrease in virus replication.
"We're excited about this and we're actively moving forward toward clinical trials," Nature magazine quoted Dr. Jeffrey Glenn, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology, as saying.
With the help of coin-sized microfluidic chips that minimizes tabletop biological experiments down to the tiny scale of nanoliters, the research team was able to screen more than 1,200 drug candidates and find clemizole in just two weeks.
Unlike other proteins, NS4B is difficult to purify in large quantities while retaining the protein's natural properties and functionality.
Stephen Quake, PhD, professor of bioengineering and the other senior author said that the paper marks the first time that microfluidic technology has been used to discover a specific drug.
While researching for the specific drug to target the protein, co author Doron Gerber, PhD, in bioengineering discovered18 drugs that substantially reduced NS4B binding to its target RNA.
However they focused on clemizole because it is already known to be safe in humans.
Glenn said, that clemizole could become an essential component in a new class of multidrug treatments for hepatitis C.
The study appears in online edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology.