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Chapel Hill, NC – Does hepatitis C cause liver cancer due to inflammation associated with the disease, or does the virus interact with host cells in a different way to promote the development of cancer?

Two UNC scientists have received $2.35 million to combine the power of technologies developed in each of their laboratories to answer this question.

Lishan Su, PhD, is a professor of microbiology and immunology and a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UNC Center for Infectious Disease. His team has developed a laboratory model of hepatitis C that more faithfully replicates the course of the disease in humans, both in terms of inflammation, immune response and other factors.

Stanley M. Lemon, MD, is a professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology and a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Center for Translational Immunology, and the UNC Center for Infectious Disease. His laboratory’s recombinant DNA virus technology will help the team understand how genetic changes in hepatitis C virus may affect disease progression, including liver cancer.

The researchers are both principal investigators on the five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute, a member institute of the National Institutes of Health.

“Chronic hepatitis C infection is now the leading cause of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in the U.S., but how it causes liver cancer is not well understood because of the lack of a small animal model for hepatitis C. This multi-PI project will allow us to further refine a recently developed mouse model that develops a human immune response to HCV and human liver diseases when infected with HCV. The project will combine the expertise of the Su group in human immunology and humanized mouse models with that of the Lemon group in HCV viral genetics and liver cancer to elucidate mechanisms of HCV-induced liver cancer,” said Dr. Su.

“A number of studies have documented that inflammation plays a role in liver cancer. But there is evidence that there is more to the story of virus-cell interaction in the development of cancer. We believe that the virus is interacting specifically with host cell tumor suppressor pathways to promote cancer and we want to understand what drives this progression from infection to cancer in order to figure out how to stop it,” said Dr. Lemon.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood borne infection in the United States, affecting approximately 3.2 million people. The disease accounts for the deaths of more Americans each year than HIV/AIDS. Liver cancer is the third leading cause of death from cancer worldwide and the ninth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Chronic hepatitis virus infections account for more than two-thirds of these cases.