By Alexandra Sifferlin
November 5, 2014

The first human clinical trial of a new hepatitis C vaccine shows that it’s safe in humans, says a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Researchers at the University of Oxford have shown that their first-of-its-kind vaccine for the transmissible liver disease is both effective and safe in an initial safety trial.

An estimated 3.2 million people in the U.S. have chronic hepatitis C, and most do not know they are infected because they don’t have visible or bothersome symptoms. Despite the emergence of effective (but pricey) drugs to treat hepatitis C in the last couple years, there’s still no vaccine. Other types of vaccines spur individuals’ bodies to create antibodies that fight a disease, but that hasn’t worked for hepatitis C. The new potential vaccine induces T cells that target several parts of the virus.

“Our lab spent many years looking at what happens with people who are naturally infected with hepatitis C, because about 20% of people naturally clear the infection using their immune system,” says study author Eleanor Barnes. “That really gives us hope that a vaccination strategy is really possible. We know from looking at these people who naturally clear the infection that the T cell appears to be an important part of that immune response.”

The vaccine is currently undergoing testing in a Phase IIB study in both Baltimore and San Francisco among people who are intravenous drug users, one important mode of transmission for the disease. Results are expected in 2016.

“We have all these different types of new drugs [for hepatitis C], and they really are fantastic. But they are really expensive and you have to give them for 12 weeks or more,” says Barnes. “Most of Hep C is not in developed countries. A lot of it is in resource-poor countries, and I think ultimately we should be looking towards global eradication of Hep C, which will really require a combination of drugs and vaccines.”

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