Hepatitis C Virus - Proteins, Diagnosis, Treatment and New Approaches for Vaccine Development


Background: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes acute and chronic human hepatitis infection and as such is an important global health problem. The virus was discovered in the USA in 1989 and it is now known that three to four million people are infected every year, WHO estimating that 3 percent of the 7 billion peopleworldwide being chronically infected. Humans are the natural hosts of HCV and this virus can eventually lead to permanent liver damage and carcinoma. HCV is a member of the Flaviviridae family and Hepacivirus genus.The diameter of the virus is about 50-60 nm and the virion contains a single-stranded positive RNA approximately 10,000 nucleotides in length and consisting of one ORF which is encapsulated by an external lipid envelopeand icosahedral capsid. HCV is a heterogeneous virus, classified into 6 genotypes and more than 50 subtypes.Because of the genome variability, nucleotide sequences of genotypes differ by approximately 31-34%, and by 20-23% among subtypes. Quasi-species of mixed virus populations provide a survival advantage for the virus to create multiple variant genomes and a high rate of generation of variants to allow rapid selection of mutants for new environmental conditions. Direct contact with infected blood and blood products, sexual relationships and availability of injectable drugs have had remarkable effects on HCV epidemiology. Hundreds of thousandsof people die each year from hepatitis and liver cancer caused by HCV virus infection. Approximately 80% of patients with acute hepatitis C progress into a chronic disease state leading to serious hepatic disorders, 10-20%of which develop chronic liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. The incubation period of HCV is 6-8 weeks and the infection is often asymptomatic so it is very hard to detect at early stages, making early treatment very difficult. Therefore, hepatitis C is called a “silent disease”. Neutralizing antibodies are produced against several HCV proteins during infection but the virus mutates to escape from antibodies. Some patients withchronic hepatitis C may have some symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches, nausea and pain. Autoimmune and immunecomplex-mediated diseases have also been reported with chronic HCV infection.