Although the existence of hepatitis C had been postulated in the 1970s, it wasn't until 1989 that a team led by Michael Houghton identified the virus. Often being asymptomatic, it is estimated between 130 - 170 million people worldwide are infected with the virus that can lead to scarring of the liver and cirrhosis. Although treatment with medication is available, it isn't effective in all cases and between 20 to 30 percent of those infected with hepatitis C develop some form of liver disease. Now Houghton and a team at the University of Alberta have developed a vaccine from a single strain that is effective against all known strains of the disease.

Due to the virulence of hepatitis C, which is greater than HIV, it was thought that developing a vaccine effective against the different strains around the world would be impossible. Continuing work started more than 10 years ago at drug company Novartis, Houghton and co-investigator in his University of Alberta lab, John Law, have found that recipients of their vaccine produce antibodies that could neutralize hepatitis C. Importantly, they discovered that that vaccine was capable of eliciting broad cross-neutralizing antibodies against all the different major strains of the disease.

"This tells us that a vaccine made from a single strain can indeed neutralize all the viruses out there," says Houghton. "It really encourages the further development of that vaccine. This is a really a big step forward for the field of HCV vaccinology."

Houghton says that further testing of the vaccine is required, so it may be five to seven years before it is approved. He also points out that it is mainly a preventative measure against acquiring the disease, although it may have some benefit to those currently infected with the disease.

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