EDMONTON — A virus best known for the damage it does to the liver can also damage brain cells, University of Alberta researchers report in a new study.
The research into the impact of hepatitis C on the brain is significant, they say, because it marks the first time scientists have been able to show that the virus can infect the brain.
"It has been a question for a long time," said Pornpun Vivithanaporn, a post-doctoral fellow in the U of A's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and first author of the hepatitis C study, which was published last week in the Public Library of Science One Journal.
"It proves the virus has implications on neurological disease," she said Tuesday.
Hepatitis C infects about 170 million people globally and about 300,000 in Canada. It targets the liver, causing inflammation and cirrhosis.
Researchers already knew that severe liver disease can affect a person's brain, but more recent research suggested that hepatitis C patients without serious liver problems also could suffer from brain-related issues such as memory loss, trouble concentrating, apathy and depression.
The new study allowed a team of researchers to show precisely how the hepatitis C virus can infect brain cells on its own.
"That had never been shown before," said lead researcher Dr. Christopher Power, a neurologist who works in the U of A's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. "It gets in there, it infects and it replicates. For a virologist, that's a really core observation. You can see infection of the cells and you can see replication."
To show how the hepatitis C virus infects brain cells, Power pointed to a computer screen in his U of A lab on Tuesday.
On one side of the screen, pictures of two healthy brain cells appeared in red. On the other side, those same cells appeared peppered with green dots. And in this picture, green is bad since it represents a buildup of viral proteins that eventually damage and kill the cell. In a way, Power explained, the virus can cause brain cells to drown in their own garbage.
The discovery is important, Power said for a couple of reasons.
First, he said, there are immediate clinical implications. "It tells us we need to be vigilant for neurological problems for people who have hepatitis C," he said.
That would mean taking such steps as ensuring patients have assess to a neurologist or psychologist on their team of physicians as well as a liver specialist.
"The second issue is it underscores the importance (of) developing new treatment for hepatitis C so we can prevent infection of the brain," said Power, whose research is funded by Alberta Innovates — Health Solutions and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
There is now no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. Researchers have uncovered some treatments that work for a portion of patients infected with hepatitis C, but those also can have serious side effects for some people.
Michael Harmsworth, a hepatitis C sufferer who counts Power among his five doctors, said Tuesday he was extremely interested to learn about the research team's discovery. He said he hadn't realized that hepatitis C had the potential to affect the brain until Power showed him computer images of infected tissue samples.
Harmsworth, who was diagnosed about 13 years ago, said it all points toward progress.
"It's making me think, 'Hey, I may still have my time left here,'" Harmsworth said. "My little girl is nine years old and I want to be here when she turns 16 and goes to the prom."