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Hepatitis C Infection May Have 'Silver Lining' for Transplant Patients

Infected people who need new organ might have less need for immune-suppressing drugs, study finds
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"This is part of the virus' immune evasion strategy and can be observed in a part of patients developing chronic hepatitis C," Bohne said.

The result is an environment in which immune response is blunted against the replacement liver because hepatitis C has taught the body to ignore the new organ.

In a study of 34 people with hepatitis C who received a new liver, Bohne and his colleagues found that 17 were able to stop taking their immunosuppressive medications without suffering organ rejection.

Might the same process occur with other infectious viruses? Bohne is doubtful. He said that while other viruses can suppress the immune response, few focus their efforts on one organ the way that hepatitis C focuses on the liver.

Dr. Thomas Schiano, medical director of liver transplant for Mount Sinai Health System, said the very small study "does give us some confidence as to us to be able to wean people off of immunosuppression."

But he added that new breakthroughs in hepatitis C treatment may make the point moot, anyway.

"Effective new medicines are probably going to make this not as pertinent," Schiano said. "If we are able to get rid of the hepatitis C in a majority of patients, that will provide further confidence to transplant surgeons to get patients off of immunosuppression."

A second, related study in the same journal issue found that laboratory-engineered immune cells can help treat serious viral infections that threaten to cause rejection in organ transplant patients.

A team led by Dr. Ann Leen, of Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, said they've developed a technique to rapidly produce immune cells capable of fighting of up to five different viruses known to cause organ rejection, including Epstein-Barr virus and herpes virus.

The engineered cells eliminated nearly all viruses from a small group of patients, the researchers reported.

"These viruses are a big source of graft [new organ] failure. This is something clearly worth exploring further," Schiano said. "The cost associated with this would be mitigated by all the money we spend to protect against infection."

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