May 8, 2009

Persistence key to tracking viruses such as hepatitis C

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Charles Rice, Ph.D., delivered last week’s Discovery Lecture. (photo by Joe Howell)

Persistence key to tracking viruses such as hepatitis C

Charles Rice, Ph.D., joked at last week's Discovery Lecture that his career trajectory took a “downward spiral” when he decided to study the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

“This has been certainly one of the most challenging and nearly intractable viruses to work on, and it's taken us almost these two decades (since genetic isolation of HCV) to really get to a place where we can do the kinds of molecular virology research that is in place for other viruses,” said Rice, the Maurice R. and Corinne P. Greenberg Chair in Virology at The Rockefeller University.

His persistence has paid off. A few years ago, Rice and his colleagues established a robust cell culture replication system for HCV, which has opened new opportunities for investigating this pathogen.

“I think this really represents the golden age of molecular virology for this virus, because we have so many tools now, and it has also become a very exciting time in the translation of these studies into the clinic,” said Rice, who also is the scientific and executive director of the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C.

HCV infects approximately 200 million people worldwide, and is a major cause of acute hepatitis and chronic liver disease — including cirrhosis and liver cancer. HCV infection is the leading cause of liver transplantation in the United States.

Although there is no vaccine available, new anti-viral medications are showing promise in clinical trials and new anti-viral targets are being identified, Rice said. He noted that there is heightened optimism for vaccine development as well.

“I think it's fair to say that (Rice's) contributions to this field have been enormous,” said

Terence Dermody, M.D., director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and the Elizabeth B. Lamb Center for Pediatric Research at Vanderbilt, which sponsored Rice's lecture as part of an annual two-day lectureship.

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to