A single protein may tip the balance between ridding the body of a dangerous virus and enduring life-long chronic infection, according to a report appearing in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.
Hepatitis B and C viruses cause chronic infections in roughly three-quarters of infected people, putting these individuals at risk for developing liver diseases including cirrhosis and cancer. A few patients successfully eliminate infection, thanks primarily to virus-fighting immune cells called CD8+ T cells. The protective effects of CD8+ T cells depend on a cellular protein called T-bet, which is needed for the production of antiviral molecules like interferon.
Scientists in Munich, Germany, have now found that high levels of T-bet in CD8+ T cells are prevalent in individuals who successfully fight off hepatitis infections but are virtually undetectable in those who don't. The presence of T-bet went hand in hand with the production of interferon and the ability of CD8+ T cells to multiply in response to the virus. Whether boosting levels of T-bet in newly infected patients will help eliminate the virus remains to be seen.
Kurktschiev, P.D., et al. 2014. J. Exp. Med. doi:10.1084/jem.20131333
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Research reported in the press release was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Research, and the European Research Council.