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The Scripps Research Institute Breakthrough on HCV
Last month scientists working in the Wilson Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute published new high-resolution pictures of previously undocumented portions of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). These images shed new light on how the virus functions in infecting cells, and offer a clearer therapeutic target. Now that scientists have a new understanding of the shape and size of the target site, termed the E2 envelope glycoprotein (E2), they will be able to create vaccine molecules that are shaped in such a way they can neutralize a broad subset of HCV strains. This has tremendous public health implications: 200 million people are thought to carry HCV, including 3 million in the United States. It is thought to be responsible for more deaths every year than HIV and is nearly symptomless. It accomplishes this level of potency through clever mechanisms that confound our immune system, including rapidly mutating protein sites and a sugar coating that make it difficult if not impossible for our antibodies to recognize and attack with success.
In mapping the E2 site, researchers have found a way to overcome the natural defenses of HCV. Researchers now anticipate that an affordable vaccine will be possible in the near future; they are already trying various permutations of vaccine molecules to identify which ones work with the highest efficacy. The culmination of the Scripps team’s painstaking work and its potential role in curing a terrible viral infection provides us with a wonderful case study of the benefits that can be derived from bringing engineering and biology to bear on diseases that were once thought to be intractable.