Hepatitis C virus


Hepatitis C virus has infected 160 million people worldwide, a figure that is roughly four times the number of people with HIV.

Fighting Hepatitis C

Rutgers scientists have figured out the structure of a hepatitis C surface protein that could help develop a vaccine to stop the spread of the deadly disease, which affects 3.2 million Americans. Joseph Marcotrigiano, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at the School of Arts and Sciences, says the research findings, appearing in Nature, reveal the existence of an outer region of hepatitis C that enables the virus, which is constantly mutating, to infect a host cell and evade the body’s immune responses, causing an acute infection, which can be difficult to treat. By identifying the structure of the virus’s outer protein, scientists will be better able to develop a vaccine that allows the immune system to produce more infection-fighting antibodies to neutralize the virus, according to Marcotrigiano RC’95, the lead author of the study, a collaboration between the Center for Advanced Biotech­nology and Medicine at Rutgers and Emory University School of Medicine.

Hepatitis C virus has infected 160 million people worldwide, a figure that is roughly four times the number of people with HIV. Most people don’t show symptoms until the virus has caused severe liver damage. — Robin Lally

Acupuncture and Inflammation

A new study, published in Nature Medicine, documents a direct connection between the use of acupuncture and physical processes that could alleviate sepsis, a condition that often develops in hospital intensive care units, springs from infection and inflammation, and takes an estimated 250,000 lives in the United States every year. Building on the knowledge that stimulating the vagus nerve, one of the body’s major nerves, reduces inflammation, Luis Ulloa, an immunologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, wondered whether a form of acupuncture that sends a small electric current through the nerve—electroacupuncture—could reduce inflammation in septic mice. It did—as long as the mouse’s adrenal glands, which produce hormones, were functioning, a condition that is often not the case in a person with sepsis.

Digging deeper, Ulloa discovered that one reaction to electroacupuncture was heightened dopamine production in the mice with healthy adrenal glands. By next trying a drug that mimics some of dopamine’s positive effects, fenoldopam, Ulloa found that it alleviated inflammation in mice, even those with reduced adrenal function. Thus electroacupuncture and fenoldopam could lead to a human treatment for sepsis as well as inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and Crohn’s disease. — Rob Forman

Battling HIV

The sinister genius of HIV is the virus’s ability to hijack a healthy cell and replicate in it before the damaged cell, sensing an invasion, can react by committing cellular suicide in order to prevent the virus’s spread. But help is on the way. The topical antifungal drug ciclopirox causes HIV-infected cells to commit suicide by jamming the cells’ powerhouse, the mitochondria, thereby reactivating the cell’s suicide protocol. Healthy, uninfected cells examined during this study were spared. And unlike current anti-HIV drugs, ciclopirox eradicates infectious HIV from cell cultures, with no return of the virus when the drug is stopped. Anti-retroviral drugs revolutionized HIV treatment of patients, but they are effective at keeping HIV at bay only if the drugs are continuously taken throughout a patient’s life, and they don’t eliminate the virus.

The study, conducted by researchers in three departments at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who were led by Michael Mathews and Hartmut Hanauske-Abel, who is a doctor, was recently published in PLOS ONE. The research team also showed that ciclopirox, commonly used by dermatologists and gynecologists to treat fungal infections, inhibits the expression of HIV genes in culture. — Genene Morris

Making the Body Safe for Chemotherapy

Chemo- and radiation therapies can be helpful in combating cancer, but they also often cause collateral damage to healthy cells because of their toxicity. A new study led by Alexey Ryazanov, a professor of pharma­cology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and member of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, suggests the day could arrive when healthy cells can be protected as doses of chemo and radiation are increased to kill cancer cells and cure patients.

The secret, he says, is to eliminate eEF2K, an enzyme that influences the rates of protein production in the body. Ryazanov’s latest findings, published in Developmental Cell, demonstrate that the presence of eEF2K weakens healthy cells. Typically, the body degrades and destroys defective cells involved in reproduction as a way to preserve the quality of genetic material. The enzyme’s presence, though, tends to leave healthy cells compromised—and vulnerable to poisoning by chemo and radiation. Removing the enzyme would make healthy cells even stronger and thus able to withstand harsh cancer treatments. The opposite effect takes place with malignant cancer cells, which, upon having eEF2K removed, are weakened and prey to chemo and radiation. Animal testing is already under way. — Rob Forman

A Vicious Cycle

Teenaged girls who are clinically depressed are, unlike boys, particularly susceptible to obesity, according to a study coauthored by Naomi Marmorstein, a professor in the De­partment of Psychology at Rutgers University–Camden, and appearing in the International Journal of Obesity. Conversely, obese female adolescents are particularly vulnerable to depression as they enter adulthood. To break the cycle, professional intervention should provide not only psychological counseling, but also dietary and exercise advice to prevent young women, 14 to 24 years of age, from gaining weight.

Sex and the Statin

Statin medication, commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol and decrease the chance of heart attack and stroke, can also improve a man’s erectile function, according to researchers at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. John B. Kostis, professor of medicine and director of the Cardiovascular Institute at the school, was the principal investigator of a study whose findings were unveiled at the American College of Cardiology’s annual scientific session and in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. — Jennifer Forbes

A, B, Cs on Vitamin A

Vitamin A deficiency affects hundreds of millions worldwide, especially in the developing world. It’s linked to blindness, impaired immune systems, and birth defects, and it causes millions of deaths every year, many of them children. Rutgers scientists believe that they have found a way to fight back. A team led by Loredana Quadro, asso­ciate professor in the Department of Food Science in the School of Environ­mental and Biological Sciences, has found that E. coli bacteria can be engineered in mice to produce beta-carotene, the most abundant and well-characterized precursor of vitamin A. The research is an important step toward figuring out how human-friendly bacteria can be engineered to produce high levels of beta-carotene and forgo the need to consume foods rich in vitamin A or beta-carotene or a pill, both in short supply or nonexistent in affected parts of the world. — Ken Branson

In From the Cold

Who would have thought that ice worms might some day improve success rates for organ transplants? According to Daniel Shain, a professor in the Department of Biology at Rutgers University–Camden, ice worms have heightened levels of the adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a coenzyme that plays a big role in transporting chemical energy within cells for metabolism and provides all living things protection against the cold. Shain speculates that the presence of extra ATP in the human cellular system at colder temperatures would allow the processes of the cell

to continue. Thus, more time would be available for transporting organs for transplants, a procedure that normally has to be conducted within 24 hours, because the refrigerated organ would have enhanced cellular activity.