Cooperation among viral variants helps hepatitis C survive immune system attacks

Warring armies use a variety of tactics as they struggle to gain the upper hand. Among their tricks is to attack with a decoy force that occupies the defenders while an unseen force launches a separate attack that the defenders fail to notice.

A study published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) may employ similar tactics to distract the body's natural defenses. After infecting patients, Hepatitis C evolves many variants, among them an "altruistic" group of viral particles that appears to sacrifice itself to protect other mutants from the body's immune system.

The findings, reported by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), could help guide development of future vaccines and treatments for the virus, which affects an estimated 170 million people in the world. Developing slowly over many years and often without symptoms, Hepatitis C can cause severe liver damage and cancer. There are currently no vaccines for the disease.

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