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A silent killer

Researchers studying how the hepatitis C virus kills liver cells


By Rebecca Rebeiro

According to new guidelines published by the Canadian Association for the Study of the Liver, roughly 250,000 Canadians are believed to have contracted the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

However, 40-70 per cent are not aware they’re infected.

Two doctors in lab coats standing in a lab
From left are Dr. Rodney Russell and Dr. Michael Grant from the BioMedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The majority of those people were born between 1945 and 1975, and are now being urged to get tested as symptoms of the virus can take decades to appear.

What is HCV?

HCV attacks the liver and, if left untreated, could lead to cirrhosis (liver scarring), liver failure and liver cancer.

If detected early, most infected patients can easily be cured thanks to the discovery of new drugs, which have a cure rate between 95-99 per cent.

“At a certain stage, there’s a point of no return.” — Dr. Rodney Russell

But what happens to patients who have already suffered major liver damage?

“At a certain stage, there’s a point of no return — where treating against the virus won’t reverse the immense damage to the liver,” said Dr. Rodney Russell, associate professor of virology and immunology at the Faculty of Medicine.

“By understanding HCV’s pathogenesis, we can hopefully find different treatment plans to help the liver fight the virus or reverse the damage.”

A lifelong pursuit

Dr. Russell has been studying HCV for most of his professional career.

“He has been a pioneer in HCV research beginning with his post-doctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health where he developed an especially robust HCV culture system,” said Dr. Michael Grant, associate dean, Division of BioMedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine.

“Since coming to Memorial, he has used that system to study virus assembly, drug resistance, immune escape and other critical features related to HCV infection and hepatitis.”

His most recent research, which found that HCV can cause a relatively newly discovered form of cell death, helped Dr. Russell and his colleagues land a $20,000 grant from Memorial’s Medical Research Endowment Fund.

From left are Leah Curnew and Hannah Wallace, students in Dr. Russell’s lab.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The goal of the study is to understand how HCV can cause multiple forms of cell death in virus-infected tissue. To date, all of the work has been performed using laboratory strains of the virus and cultured cells.

With the funding, the research team can now collaborate with associates at infectious diseases/liver clinics in Toronto and Halifax who have access to infected tissues samples from humans. Animal samples will be provided by a lab in Alberta.

“We have a real opportunity here to find and cure people.” — Dr. Rodney Russell

Once procured, the team will be able to directly test whether Dr. Russell’s lab-based findings translate to individuals infected with HCV.

“With the recent media pickup advising people to get tested, this is the perfect time for our research project, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Dr. Russell.

“For every one HCV case we know of, there’s likely one we don’t. And while the number of confirmed HCV cases in the province are relatively low compared to the rest of the country, we have a real opportunity here to find and cure people before they have to rely on our research.”

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