Estimates suggest over 250,000 people in the UK have been infected with hepatitis C, but eight out of 10 don’t know they have it because they have no symptoms. About 75% of these people go on to develop a chronic hepatitis.
Because it can take years, even decades, for symptoms to appear, many people (possibly 100,000 or more) remain unaware they have a problem. By the time they become ill and seek help, considerable damage has been done to the liver. This might have been prevented if the person had been diagnosed earlier.
Elsewhere in the world, hepatitis C is even more common – the World Health Organization estimates that three per cent of the world’s population (about 170 million people) have chronic hepatitis C and up to four million people are newly infected each year.
While there’s increasing progress towards finding a reliable vaccine, results can’t come soon enough. Now, researchers have developed a nanoparticle that effectively eradicates hepatitis C 100 per cent of the time.
Researchers from the University of Florida have developed what they call a “nanozyme”. Based around gold nanoparticles, these things have their surface coated with two biological agents. One is an enzyme that attacks and kills the mRNA which allows hep C to replicate, while the other is a short string of DNA which identities the disease and sends the enzyme off to kill it.
While current hep C treatments attack the same replication process, they only work on about 50 per cent of patients treated. In lab-based tests, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Univeristy of Florida researchers showed that their approach was 100 per cent effective in both cell cultures and mice. They observed no side effects in the mouse models, either.
While it’s great news, such a treatment is some way off becoming available to patients any time soon. All targeted drugs have to be extremely carefully tested, as there’s always a risk that they could also end up targeting healthy parts of the body by accident. Given the current problems posed by hepatitis C, though, that testing can’t happen soon enough.