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Biochemist Seeks Ways to Combat Hepatitis C

August 27, 2010

Understanding how the hepatitis C virus leads to liver cancer is crucial in seeking cures for the disease, which affects millions of people across the world.

UC Merced biochemistry Professor Jinah Choi is studying the virus and its behavior in hopes of developing a solution to this challenging health problem.

“It’s really exciting that all the pieces are coming together,” Choi said. “Whatever we find in the lab has consequences. It has the potential to really impact people.”

Choi has published a paper about her research in the July issue of Hepatology, the leading journal in the field of liver disease.

Hepatitis C is blood borne and most often transmitted through contaminated needles, though it can also be passed through unprotected sex. The virus, first discovered in 1987, doesn’t directly cause liver cancer. Instead, it causes a chronic infection, which over time causes cirrhosis of the liver and damages a person’s DNA. Overtime, that damaged DNA may lead to mutations and cancerous cells in the liver. A person can carry hepatitis C for years without knowing it.

Choi is looking for ways to limit virus replication or at least the virus’ ability to ultimately cause cancer. Antioxidants can reduce oxidation and DNA damage, but they’re not likely to be as effective when consumed in food, drinks or supplements. Choi said one option could be directly inhibiting the source of oxidants in the infected cell, making its effect more potent. In the paper in Hepatology, Choi describe this source of oxidants that can be targeted by a pharmacological approach.

Another option is to increase the efficacy of antiviral drugs or facilitate the development of a vaccine that prevents someone from receiving the virus or blocks it from replicating.

Choi, who was an undergraduate at UCLA, came to UC Merced because she knew there was a new UC campus in the works. She wanted to be among the first faculty members to help develop the programs.

“We can shape the future of the UC and serve the community,” she explained, adding that she enjoys the close interaction with students. “Students know faculty and faculty members can know each student. It’s almost unheard of at UCLA.”