AUSTIN (KXAN) — Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin say the cancer that killed a former school mascot is the same cancer they’re looking to for clues in treating Hepatitis C.
Currently UT’s mascot is Bevo XV, the 15th longhorn steer to hold the position. XV’s predecessor, Bevo XIV died in October of 2015 because of Bovine leukemia virus.
XIV was beloved by fans, he had a front-row seat to UT’s football glory in the early 2000s and made an appearance at President George W. Bush’s second inauguration. When he died, Bevo XIV was around 15 years old.
“Then we saw a press release from UT on the untimely demise of Bevo and it mentioned how Bevo passed away, and we immediately recognized it because we’d been studying this virus for years,” said Rodney Kincaid, a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biosciences at UT.
“We did not kill Bevo, we support Bevo,” clarified Christopher Sullivan, an associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT. “We hope Bevo XV lives up to Bevo XIV’s sterling image; he was a good mascot.”
Though Sullivan’s lab has fielded many questions about Bevo since its research was published, no part of Bevo was ever used for research. Instead, they relied on cow leukemia cells stored in liquid nitrogen.
Kincaid explained their lab had honed in on the Bovine Leukemia Virus because they realized a protein which accelerates the cancer in cows actually helped curb Hepatitis C in humans.
Hepatitis C is a virus that causes inflammation in the liver and for some people it can turn into a lifelong illness and even lead to death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 3.5 million Americans are currently living with chronic Hepatitis C.
“We had no idea when we started,” said Kincaid of this protein’s connection to Hepatitis C in human cells.
The Sullivan lab where he works published its findings in a journal this July.
Kincaid describes Hepatitis C as “one of those diseases that doesn’t get the amount of attention that it should.”
“The current treatments are expensive, so there would be a benefit to having cheaper options for people,” he noted. “Viruses can often evolve resistance to different types of treatment, so we want to stay ahead of the virus in terms of that.”
Kincaid added that there are medications which will soon be on the market for Hepatitis C that interact with the same protein his lab studied. He’s hoping UT’s research will help to better understand the effects of those medications.
Christopher Sullivan explained that it can be tough to get funding for “basic science” like this which aims to expand what is currently known. But Sullivan said the success his lab had in these findings is further proof that this kind of exploratory research needs to be funded.
“And if you fund our lab, we could save the next Bevo,” he added.
“This protein is used by the human to defend against the virus that causes cancer, so it was lucky and a surprise,” Sullivan said.
His lab will continue researching what he calls “these bizarro gene products” and how they might impact other human illnesses like autoimmune disorders.
“If we’re right, it seems to be pointing to a larger role in immune response in general,” he said.
“Hepatitis C is curable, but if untreated can lead to liver scarring and/or liver cancer and other complications including death,” explained Dr. Fida Khan, an infectious disease doctor at Seton.
Khan explained that treatment for chronic Hepatitis C, “has evolved drastically in the past several years.” He noted that direct-acting antivirals which have been available since 2011 have a cure rate of almost 98 to 99 percent for the virus.
“Now that the treatments for Hep C have moved away from the more cumbersome and toxic Interferon-based therapies, we definitely need more physicians being willing and comfortable treating Hep C.,” Khan said, adding that one of his goals for 2019 is to train more primary care physicians to screen patients and arrange treatments for those with chronic Hepatitis C.
“The main hurdles in the U.S., and worldwide, are educating patients and physicians to identify risk factors and screen all those at high risk for Hep C,” he said. “The affordability of these treatments can also be a challenge.”
Khan noted that because of the new development of Hepatitis C medications, companies that make them still have control over their pricing, and generic options are not on the market yet.
He advised that if you or your loved one may have been exposed to Hepatitis C, visit your family doctor or another related physician to get a blood test done.
The CDC recommends that the following groups of people be tested for Hepatitis C:
- Current or former injection drug users, including those who injected only once many years ago
- Those born from 1945 through 1965
- Recipients of clotting factor concentrates made before 1987, when less advanced methods for manufacturing those products were used
- Recipients of blood transfusions or solid organ transplants prior to July 1992, before better testing of blood donors became available
- Hemodialysis patients
- People with known exposures to the hepatitis C virus, such as Health care workers after needle sticks involving blood from someone who is infected with the hepatitis C virus
- Recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the hepatitis C virus
- People with HIV infection
- Children born to mothers infected with the hepatitis C virus
- People who are incarcerated
- People who use intranasal drugs
- People who received body piercings or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments