Researchers develop one-step test to detect hepatitis C

Published by IBT on 15 November 2015. Author:  Karla Tecson

A team of scientists have designed a cost-effective, one-step test that screens, detects and confirms hepatitis C virus (HCV infection).

For the first time, urine specimens can be used to diagnose HCV infection, according to UC Irvine Health researchers. The ability to detect infection using urine rather than blood avoids needle stick and blood sample collection, which greatly reduces the cost and necessary clinical infrastructure for screening and diagnosis, the team says.

The study was presented by Dr Ke-Qin Hu, director of hepatology services, at the Annual Meeting of American Association for the Study of Liver Disease in San Francisco, U.S. 

“Our novel HCV antigen test system has significantly improved sensitivity and specificity over current tests. Finding a more convenient, easy-to-use and cost-effective screening alternative is imperative, because HCV is significantly under-screened and under-diagnosed,” says Hu, who is also a professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at UC Irvine School of Medicine. 

While current blood-based HCV testing is specific and sensitive, it cannot distinguish active infection from a previous infection, the team points out. It also requires a blood sample, and is done in two steps which can be expensive, inconvenient and is not widely available or affordable globally, they add. 

The first step in the current HCV testing detects virus-specific antibodies in the blood. Afterwards, another test called HCV RNA PCR test must be administered to confirm whether or not the infection is active. Hu says many developing countries are not equipped to conduct the two-step test. 

Helping to promote widespread adoption of HCV screening on a global scale, the novel test system developed by Hu’s UC Irvine lab could significantly reduce the cost, human resources and time required for the test results. “Those who are HCV infected can now be cured, before a further liver injury and complications develop, but only if they are diagnosed,” Hu says. 

According to Hepatitis Australia, HCV is a disease that attacks the liver. The virus, which spreads through any type of blood‐to‐blood contact, affects about 150 million people globally and more than 230,000 Australians are living with this.

The symptoms of chronic hepatitis C can take years to emerge, however liver damage can be silently progressing. Left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver, liver cancer and liver failure. 

In Australia, it is estimated that around 15 percent of people living with chronic HCV have not yet been diagnosed. While there is no vaccine to protect against the infection, it can be prevented, and in many cases, cured.