Novel cheap blood test for hepatitis C
10 February 2009
A multinational team of researchers has developed a novel blood test
that could bring a breakthrough in the battle against the dangerous
hepatitis-C virus. This procedure offers a considerably cheaper
alternative to the normal commercial tests, whilst maintaining equal
Now, for the first time, poorer countries will also have the
opportunity to monitor their entire blood banks for the hepatitis C
virus using optimum methods.
This procedure has been developed by researchers at Bonn University
and the Bernhard-Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg.
Scientists from Brazil, Singapore, South Africa and England were also
engaged in this research. The study is published in the online journal
PLoS Medicine .
170 million people worldwide have already become infected with the
hepatitis C virus. The early stages of the disease often go unnoticed.
However, later symptoms include liver cancer and mortally dangerous
liver cirrhosis. One of the chief sources of infection lies in
contaminated blood banks, which is why all the bloodbanks in Europe or
the USA are routinely tested for the hepatitis C virus.
However, poorer countries cannot afford this, or they have to rely on
out-dated tests of inadequate sensitivity. The new procedure could
change all this. “In Brazil, a standard hepatitis C test costs over
US$100 a sample — for us, in contrast, the cost lies at just under
US$19”, declares Dr Jan Felix Drexler. US$10 of this are licence fees —
several major pharmaceutical companies hold patents for the genome of
the hepatitis C virus.
Dr Drexler, who has been engaged in the development of this new test
procedure, has just removed from the Bernhard-Nocht Institute in Hamburg
to Bonn University. The procedure functions, in principle, in exactly
the same way as most of the commercial tests hitherto available on the
market: all these procedures recognise genotype sequences in the blood,
which originate from the hepatitis C virus.
However, the problem is that various types of pathogen exist, whose
genotypes are sometimes very different. A good blood test ought to raise
the alarm equally well for each of these types. “In Asia, for example,
we often find different hepatitis C viruses from ours”, says Dr.
Drexler. “But when a tourist becomes infected in Thailand and
subsequently donates blood in Germany, we must be able to diagnose these
blood samples without fail, too”.
600 Blood Samples examined
At many points, however, the genotypes of diverse pathogens are to a
great extent identical. Geneticists speak here of conserved regions, and
all commercial tests have been “specialised” with respect to one of
these points. The new procedure, in contrast, reacts when it detects
sequences from a different conserved region which has not so far been
used for HCV diagnosis.
Working on the basis of just under 600 blood samples from five
different countries, researchers were able to demonstrate just how well
this functions. “We are, at least, just as sensitive as the two best
standard procedures”, emphasises Professor Dr. Christian Drosten, a
virologist from Bonn University. “This is true for all types of
Passes practical test in Brazil
So now, for the first time, poorer countries also have the chance to
test their blood banks, and at comparatively small cost. “This would be
a significant breakthrough for containing the disease”, Dr. Drexler
stresses. “After all, transfusions are a major source of propagation“.
In one Brazilian laboratory the new blood test has already been given
trials on 127 patients — with outstanding success. In this latest
publication, the researchers reveal every detail of their methods. “For
anyone wishing to use this test we can also supply the control
reagents”, Dr. Drexler declares. Commercial suppliers, in contrast,
maintain the strictest secrecy regarding the precise data of their
But this procedure will not only detect the presence of an infection
with hepatitis C viruses. Doctors can also determine the total
concentration of the viruses in the blood. Hence this blood test can
also be used, for example, for monitoring therapeutic success. According
to Dr. Drexler, “In this way we could spare many patients months of
expensive treatment, and the unpleasant side-effects, too”.
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