Yalena Amador Cañizares.
Yalena Amador Cañizares.

Understanding hep C complexities

As of 2011, it is estimated nearly a quarter million Canadians were living with chronic hepatitis C (HCV), a virus that attacks the liver. Just under half of these cases—108,000 people—were unaware they had the disease since it usually has no symptoms until years or decades later.

"Saskatchewan has a high incidence of HCV relative to the Canadian average," said Yalena Amador Cañizares, post-doctoral fellow in the College of Medicine at the U of S. "These high rates make HCV infection a priority health issue that affects Saskatchewan residents."

As a blood-borne virus, hepatitis C is typically spread through unsafe injection practices, but also through inadequate sterilization of medical equipment and the transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products.

The World Health Organization (WHO) cites hepatitis C as a global health concern, with up to 150 million people chronically infected. Many will develop HCV-related diseases such as liver cirrhosis or cancer and every year, about half a million people will die.

Since there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, an ongoing goal of research is to identify novel targets for development of antiviral drugs.

Cañizares, born and raised in Cuba, completed her under- graduate and graduate studies at the University of Havana before starting her post-doctoral training under the supervision of Joyce Wilson at the U of S. In 2014, she received a Post-doctoral Fellowship Grant from Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) to explore the mechanism by which miR-122, a cellular molecule, promotes HCV replication, and to identify novel antiviral targets.

"In recent years, the standard of care has changed rapidly and promising new antiviral drugs are being developed to treat the most common strain of the virus," Cañizares said. "However, the ability of HCV to rapidly evolve in the setting of drug pressure and resistance is a possible threat to the success of these new therapies in the long term."

The high cost of these therapies means they are not being provided to all infected patients, nor will they be soon. Alternative treatment options also need to be developed for patients with less common strains of the virus and patients with a condition or factor that could harm their health if given the current therapies.

Cañizares' work will add to understanding of the complexities of HCV infection and provide needed insight to help develop new therapies to prevent and treat the disease.

 

A version of this story originally appeared in Research for Health, published by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.
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