Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers are investigating a new way to block reproduction of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) — targeting not the virus itself but the human genes the virus exploits in its life cycle. In the March 19 Cell Host & Microbe, they report finding nearly 100 genes that support the replication of HCV and show that blocking several of them can suppress viral replication in cultured cells.
“We identified a large number of genes that have not been previously known to be involved in hepatitis C replication,” says Raymond Chung, director of hepatology in the MGH gastrointestinal unit and the study’s senior author.
Lead author Andrew Tai, also of the MGH gastrointestinal unit, adds, “We may be a few years away from developing therapies based on these findings, but this study is a proof of principle that targeting host factors is a viable therapeutic strategy.”
Usually spread by blood-to-blood contact, HCV infection becomes chronic in 70 percent to 80 percent of patients, and long-term infection can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. Today, HCV-related liver disease is the most common diagnosis underlying the need for liver transplantation. HCV infection is usually treated with a six- to 11-month regimen combining peginterferon and the antiviral drug ribavirin, but treatment is not successful in many patients and has serious side effects some cannot tolerate.
Other therapies targeting viral enzymes are being developed, but there is concern that HCV’s ability to mutate rapidly would lead to the emergence of resistant strains, so strategies directed against factors in the infected host rather than the virus may offer a complementary approach. These strategies are being explored in a number of diseases — including influenza, West Nile virus, and HIV — and previous studies have scanned a limited number of human genes for host cofactors of HCV infection.
For the current study, the researchers examined whether blocking each of the approximately 21,000 predicted messenger RNA transcripts in the human genome with small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) had any effect on HCV replication. Chung notes that this approach does not rely on any prior assumptions about gene function and can thereby identify genes not previously suspected of involvement.
The siRNA scan found 96 genes that appear to have a role in viral replication, and the research team studied several of them in greater detail. One gene codes for an enzyme called PI4KA, which is believed to be involved in the formation of membrane structures within the cell that may be the site of HCV replication. Another group of genes contributes to formation of the protein coat that covers several types of cellular vesicles and is known to have a role in the replication of poliovirus. The researchers also focused on the gene for hepcidin, a liver protein that regulates iron absorption, since iron levels in the blood and liver rise in chronic HCV infection. They found that blocking each of these genes also blocked HCV replication, as did drugs that inhibit PI4KA and the protein coat, although the tested agents might not be suitable for therapeutic use.
“Now we need to work to uncover the molecular mechanisms by which these genes support HCV replication to get a better idea of which would be advantageous therapeutic targets,” explains Chung, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Additional co-authors of the Cell Host & Microbe paper are Yair Benita, Sun-Suk Kim, and Ramnik Xavier, MGH gastrointestinal unit; and Naoya Sakamoto, Tokyo Medical and Dental University.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Massachusetts Biomedical Research Corp., the American Gastroenterological Association and the American Liver Foundation.