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03.02.2020

Hepatitis B: New therapeutic approach may help to cure chronic hepatitis B infection

Researchers at Helmholtz Zentrum München, Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) have developed a novel therapeutic approach to cure chronic hepatitis B. The scientists found that the large amount of hepatitis B virus proteins expressed in the liver prevents the body's immune system to defeat the virus, consequently preventing an effective therapy. The researchers were able to show that knocking down the expression of the virus’ proteins enables successful vaccination with TherVacB, a novel therapeutic vaccine.

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Around 260 million humans, more than three percent of the world's population, are chronically infected by the hepatitis B virus. As a result, every year, 880,000 people worldwide die of liver failure or hepatocellular carcinoma. Currently no curative therapy is available. The therapies available to date inhibit virus replication, but need to be given long-term. As long as infected people cannot form an adequate immune response, the virus will survive. This is precisely where Prof. Ulrike Protzer, head of the Institute of Virology at Helmholtz Zentrum München and TUM, and her team start.

Novel therapeutic approach

Using a preclinical mouse model, the researchers found that proteins of the hepatitis B virus prevent that certain immune cells of the body, so-called CD8+ T-cells become effective. Based on these finding, the scientists developed a novel therapeutic approach: first, the expression levels of the virus proteins are knocked down, and then the immune cells are activated by therapeutic vaccination. In contrast to conventional vaccinations, which aim to prevent diseases before outbreak, such a therapeutic vaccination aims to cure already existing chronic diseases.

Successful suppression of virus proteins in mice

Consequently, the researchers first developed a method to suppress the hepatitis B virus proteins. They used siRNAs, small ribonucleic acid molecules that bind to the messenger RNA of the virus’ proteins. By labelling the messenger RNA with siRNA, the infected cell receives the signal that the viral RNA is undesired and removes it. In this way protein expression is knocked down. However, the suppression of protein expression alone was not sufficient to reverse the inhibition of the CD8+ T-cells in chronically infected mice.

Infection cured in mice

The scientists therefore had to go one step further: “We then combined the siRNA method with a therapeutic vaccination developed by us. This enabled us to trigger a strong immune response against the virus. This led to cure of hepatitis B virus infection in two different mouse models,” explains Dr. Thomas Michler, physician and one of the two first authors of the study.

Novel therapeutic vaccination soon in a clinical trial

The newly developed vaccine, called TherVacB, will be tested as an immunotherapy in a two-year clinical trial starting in 2021. “The therapeutic vaccine we have developed is indeed very promising as it induces neutralizing antibodies and T-cell responses,” said Dr. Anna Kosinska, the other first author of the study. The vaccine will be administered in three doses every four weeks. It has been designed to target the majority of all hepatitis B viruses and therefore will be beneficial to most people infected worldwide.

“We are very pleased that for the clinical trials of TherVacB we are able to cooperate with a consortium of Europe’s leading virologists, immunologists and hepatologist, guided by Helmholtz Zentrum München,” adds Protzer. The consortium will receive funding of more than € 10 million from the European Union within the program Horizon 2020 (H2020-SC1-2019).

Original publication:
T. Michler et al., 2020: Knockdown of Virus Antigen Expression Increases Therapeutic Vaccine Efficacy in High-titer HBV Carrier Mice. Gastroenterology, DOI: 10.1053/j.gastro.2020.01.032.

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,500 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 19 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

The Institute of Virology (VIRO) investigates viruses that chronically infect humans and can cause life-threatening diseases. The research activities of the institute focus mainly on the HI virus which causes AIDS, on endogenous retroviruses, which are integrated into our germline, and hepatitis B and C viruses, which cause liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Molecular studies identify new diagnostic and therapeutic concepts to prevent and treat these viral diseases or to prevent the formation of virus-induced tumors.

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with around 550 professors, 41,000 students, and 10,000 academic and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

At the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), over 500 scientists from 35 institutions nationwide jointly develop new approaches for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases. Their aim is to translate research results into clinical practice rapidly and effectively. With this, the DZIF paves the way for developing new vaccines, diagnostics and drugs in the fight against infections.