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A helping hand for hepatitis C treatment

HCV Research UK is collecting blood samples from 10,000 people with hepatitis C infection (Credit: Flickr/Chandra Marsono)

HCV Research UK is collecting blood samples from 10,000 people with hepatitis C infection (Credit: Flickr/Chandra Marsono)

How do we know who’ll respond to drugs for hepatitis C? And how can this guide treatment? John McLauchlan, Associate Director of the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, tells us about two large research projects that are aiming to find out and take us a step closer to tailored treatment for the disease.

Devastated, angry, confused. These are just some of the ways people feel when they find out they’re infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus is thought to be carried by as many as 180 million people across the world. There is no vaccine available and although treatment can be successful, it is often accompanied by unpleasant side effects which can lead to people stopping treatment before it’s worked.

Chronic infection with HCV can lead to liver disease, and a heavy burden is being put on healthcare services as rates of liver disease related to HCV, such as cirrhosis or liver cancer, rise. Trying to predict who will develop these serious life threatening diseases and who will respond to treatment is very difficult.

It is against this backdrop that a group of clinicians, scientists and public health bodies — myself included — have joined forces to create HCV Research UK, which we’re officially launching today.

HCV researchers find it difficult to find enough patients to take part in research. By working together, and using funding from the Medical Research Foundation — the charitable arm of the MRC — we are recruiting 10,000 infected patients from across the UK. We’re collecting blood samples and clinical data such as whether the patients have previously received treatment.

Sharing these data and samples will allow us to study important clinical and scientific questions. From a personal point of view, it’s been heartening to see the enthusiasm from centres wanting to join the consortium — we started with 18 centres but it now looks like we’ll reach 40, meaning we’ll be able to carry out even more diverse studies than we initially thought. For example, getting samples from a wider geographical spread of places means we can see how the virus differs around the country.

Alongside this, a new research consortium, called STOP-HCV, has been set up to tackle the difficult question of who may develop serious disease and who might respond to treatment. STOP-HCV will use state-of-the-art methods to look for ‘markers’ in the samples that we’re collecting through HCV Research UK, which can be used to tell whether someone is likely to respond to treatment.

If we can develop reliable tests, we’ll be able to make better decisions about how to use new HCV drugs that have recently become available, and the many more that we hope will be available in the near future. The funding for STOP-HCV has come from the MRC as part of its Stratified Medicine Initiative to help consortia made up of academic and industry researchers develop stratified — or personalised — treatments for disease.

HCV Research UK and STOP-HCV are important initiatives in trying to help the NHS to deliver the best treatment to each patient. Maybe then the devastation, anger and confusion of those unfortunate enough to be infected with such a nasty virus will be alleviated.

John McLauchlan

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