New study of hepatitis provides clues for fighting the disease

Posted Aug 13, 2014 by Tim Sandle
A new technique to sustain hepatitis B in liver cells has allowed researchers to study the immune response and drug treatments.
Liver cells infected with hepatitis B virus
Liver cells infected with hepatitis B virus
Hepatitis B infection is an important concern. Around 400 million people worldwide are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV); of those, one-third will go on to develop life-threatening complications, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. A complete cure for the disease is very rare, once someone has been chronically infected. Acute infection with hepatitis B virus is associated with acute viral hepatitis — an illness that begins with general ill-health, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, body aches, mild fever, and dark urine, and then progresses to development of jaundice.
The aim of the research is to study the persistent form of the virus to try to identify treatments that could efficiently clear it. This type of research has been hampered by sustaining the virus inside liver cells for periods sufficiently long and which can be replicated in the laboratory. Although researchers have previously been able to infect cultures of human hepatocytes with HBV, the cells' limited lifespan has made it difficult to study the virus.
To counter this, researchers set out to develop a technique to keep the liver cells stable and functioning long enough to monitor their response to the virus and antiviral drugs. The method involves patterned liver cells onto surfaces dotted with tiny spots of collagen, and then surrounding them using supportive tissue made up of stromal cells. This surround acts as connective tissue and support the hepatocytes in carrying out their liver functions. The researchers found that liver cells obtained from livers donated for transplant worked best.
To investigate whether the cell cultures could be used to test new treatments for the disease, the researchers monitored their response to two existing drugs. They found that the infected cultures responded to the drugs in the same way that liver cells inside the body are known to do. This means the systems could be used to help predict how effective new treatments will be in eradicating the virus from liver cells. Having developed the technique, the researchers now plan to begin using it to investigate new treatments for HBV.
The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research is titled “Modeling host interactions with hepatitis B virus using primary and induced pluripotent stem cell-derived hepatocellular systems.”