Researchers from Saint Louis University, the University of Missouri and the University of Pittsburgh state that a new discovery may make it possible to cure hepatitis B. They were able to measure and block a previously unstudied enzyme to stop the virus from replicating in the body.
"Hepatitis B is the major cause of liver failure and liver cancer worldwide," said lead researcher, John Tavis, Ph.D. "This would have an extremely positive effect on liver disease and liver cancer rates. If we can cure hepatitis B, we can eliminate the majority of liver cancer cases. This research is a step toward achieving that goal."
Tavis and his colleagues spent decades studying ribonuclease H - a viral enzyme responsible for replicating the virus. Once they discovered a way to measure the enzyme, they also found that several effective drugs for HIV treatment also work to fight against the hepatitis B virus.
The researchers state that their finding will significantly aid in the search for anti-hepatitis ribonuclease H drugs. However, existing drugs to treat the virus will still have to be utilized.
"I anticipate a new drug targeting the second enzyme would be used together with the existing drugs," Tavis said. "They jam different parts of the process. The drugs we have are very good drugs. They push the virus down, but they can't quite kill it. They'll still do the heavy lifting in the future, but with an additional drug I hope we'll be able to mop up the rest. Together, they may be able to do it. We don't have a big distance we need to travel to reach that point."
World health experts estimate that more than 350 million people are chronically infected with the hepatitis B virus. In the U.S. alone, it's believed that as many as 1.4 million people have the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, officials state that the number of individuals who have it is likely much higher, as many don't know they are infected because they do not experience symptoms.
Spreading the virus to others
Hepatitis B is spread when blood, semen or other bodily fluids infected with the virus enters the body of a healthy person. It can be transmitted through sexual activity as well as by sharing needles, razors and toothbrushes with infected individuals. The symptoms of hepatitis B infection include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, joint pain and yellowing of the skin. Because many people don't have symptoms, they unknowingly pass it on to others.
Although doctors can look for these symptoms, officials say the best way to diagnose the virus is with a blood test.