NIH Grant to Probe the Effect of Hepatitis C on African-Americans

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UTHSC recently received a five-year $3.2 million grant as one of eight National Institutes of Health (NIH) Cooperative Research Centers. The grant will focus on hepatitis C.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center recently received a five-year $3.2 million grant as one of eight National Institutes of Health (NIH) Cooperative Research Centers. The grant, which funds multiple projects and investigators directed at a common health problem, will focus on hepatitis C.

Program director for the grant, Tony Marion, PhD, professor in the Department of Molecular Sciences, is also the project leader on one aspect of the research: To understand the reason for the poor immune response to hepatitis C virus in chronically infected patients, particularly African-Americans. Lawrence Pfeffer, PhD, Muirhead Professor in the Department of Pathology and interim deputy director at the UT Cancer Institute, is project leader to determine why African-Americans are particularly unresponsive to therapy. Jaquelyn Fleckenstein, MD, associate professor of gastroenterology, will direct all clinical activity related to the grant.

“Among the three million Americans currently infected with the hepatitis C virus, 85% become chronically infected. The rate of infection is much higher among African-Americans and their response rate to current therapy is much lower than Caucasians. The net effect is that chronic hepatitis C has become a serious health problem for Memphis and the Midsouth,” explained Dr. Marion.

“Our goal is threefold,: 1) to better understand the disease, 2) to develop an effective vaccine to prevent future infection in uninfected individuals, and 3) to develop more effective therapies for treatment of currently infected individuals,” Dr. Pfeffer commented.

The UTHSC Hepatitis C Cooperative Research Center was originally initiated and directed by Caroline Riely, MD, recently retired professor and hepatologist in the Department of Gastroenterology, with an earlier Cooperative Center Grant from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Marion earned his doctorate in immunology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and completed fellowships at Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan, and Yale University School of Medicine. Dr. Pfeffer received his doctorate in biochemistry from Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer biology at the Rockefeller University, New York. Dr. Fleckenstein received her medical degree from St. Louis University School of Medicine and postdoctoral fellowships in gastroenterology and transplantation hepatology from Johns Hopkins University.