New active substance against hepatitis B
In a 1.8 million euro project, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), a team led by Professor Stephan Urban at the University Hospital in Heidelberg is developing a virus blocker against hepatitis B infections.
Scientists at the University Hospital in Heidelberg have discovered a hepatitis B virus peptide that can successfully prevent viral infections in a mouse model. The peptide, which was produced in the laboratory, is part of the virus envelope that the virus requires in order to be able to invade liver cells. Additional information on the new substance will have to be obtained in further preclinical investigations before the substance can be tested in clinical studies that are required for the official approval of the drug. The BMBF is funding these preclinical tests with a total of 1.8 million euros.
The work of the teams, led by Professor Urban, head of the Hepatitis B Virus Research Group in the Department of Molecular Virology at the University Hospital, Dr. Jörg Petersen of the Eppendorf University Hospital and Dr. Walter Mier of the Department of Radiology at the University Hospital Heidelberg, has been published in the renowned research journal “Nature Biotechnology”. Hepatitis B can cause cirrhosis and cancer of the liver
Despite vaccinations, every year about 750,000 people die from the consequences of hepatitis B infections, namely cirrhosis or cancer of the liver. Available medication must be administered over long periods of time, only rarely leads to successful recovery and can lead to the generation of resistant viruses.
In these cases, the only hope for recovery is a liver transplant. However, patients who have received a transplant may suffer repeated liver infections and even transplant failure due to viruses that are still circulating in their bodies. Researchers worldwide are thus searching for alternative active substances.
Peptide prevents the invasion of the virus into the liver cells and thus offers protection against hepatitis D infections
“One possibility is to block the entry of the virus into the liver cell,” Professor Urban explained. The researchers thus beat the attacker with its own weapons. In the laboratory, Urban and his colleagues have created a part of the virus envelope with which the virus binds to liver cells. “A very small quantity of this peptide is sufficient to completely prevent an infection in mice,” said Urban. The peptide attaches to the liver cells, thus preventing the uptake of the virus in liver cells.
Furthermore, the researchers were able to prevent hepatitis D virus infections in cell experiments. It is known that hepatitis D infections often occur in addition to hepatitis B infections and often lead to a severe case of the disease.
From the bench to the bedside - the work of the Hepatitis Competence Network
For Professor Urban, the promising work is the result of an extremely productive cooperation between several international expert groups. “This is also an example of successful translational research: from pure basic test tube research all the way to, potentially, a highly effective medication”.
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) shares this view: Within the scope of the Hepatitis Competence Network (Hep-Net) and the funding of “Innovative molecular and cell-based therapies” projects, funding totalling 1.8 million euros have been allocated to preclinical studies that have to be carried out prior to the potential approval of new drugs. The University Hospital in Heidelberg is to receive around 1.6 million euros of the total amount granted.
Hep-Net supports nationwide research on viral liver infections, develops uniform standards for diagnosis and therapy and collects epidemiological data. Hep-Net has been successful in uniting well-known hepatitis experts (about 120) from all over Germany, including researchers at university hospitals, medical practitioners, hospitals and patient support groups.
Over 300,000 patients with chronic hepatitis B in Germany
HBV can become life-threatening, but about 90 per cent of infected patients are able to get rid of the virus. But people who test positive for the virus for more than six months are regarded as having a chronic infection. In Germany, more than 300,000 patients suffer from the disease. Effective immunisation has been available since 1986.
The virus is transmitted via contact with body fluids. In industrialised nations, adults are commonly infected, with infection occurring through unprotected sex or the sharing of needles among drug addicts. In regions with a large number of infections such as Southeast Asia or large parts of Africa, the virus is passed from mothers to their babies during delivery. Due to insufficient immune defence of newborn babies, the infection becomes chronic in more than 95 per cent of the children affected.
Source: University of Heidelberg, 26.02.20 08 (EJ)
Prof. Dr. Stephan Urban
Head of the Hepatitits B Virus Research Group
Department of Molecular Virology
University Hospital Heidelberg
Tel.: +49 (0)6221-56 2910