A deadly virus with no symptoms until its end stages, the liver disease hepatitis C could threaten the health of the largest population in North America - baby boomers.
"It is believed that a large number of baby boomers became infected with the virus in the '70s and '80s without their knowledge," says University of Saskatchewan PhD student Patricia Thibault.
"This means that within the next 10 years we can anticipate a huge wave of hepatitis C complications in this population."
The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that all baby boomers receive a one-time hepatitis C test.
While there are no concrete plans in Canada to change screening procedures, the Public Health Agency of Canada is currently revising hepatitis C screening recommendations in a report to be published in March 2013.
Hepatitis C slowly destroys the liver and can lead to complications such as cirrhosis and cancer, but symptoms don't appear for five to 30 years. There is no vaccine.
The disease is transmitted through blood, and in the developed world primarily affects intravenous drug users due to unsafe needle practices. Saskatchewan has the second-highest rate of hepatitis C in Canada, with the aboriginal population particularly affected.
The cost for treating one hepatitis C patient can be close to $80,000 per year.
Baby boomers have about five times the hepatitis C infection rate compared to any other age group.
"Before we even knew it existed, hepatitis C was transmitted through blood transfusions, organ transplants\ and recreational drug use, so many baby boomers haven't realized that they were exposed," says Thibault.
Since the virus only infects chimpanzees and humans, designing an inexpensive and effective animal model, such as a mouse model, to develop vaccines and antiviral therapies has become a high priority for hepatitis C researchers.
Under the supervision of U of S microbiologist Joyce Wilson, Thibault's research is focused on learning how hepatitis C replicates in human cells and then developing different cell lines to study the virus - knowledge critical for vaccine development.
Wilson's lab has discovered that supplementing cell cultures with a short piece of genetic material, present at high levels in the human liver, helps hepatitis C to replicate. This finding is helping the team study the virus.
Available treatments against hepatitis C include a cocktail of drugs administered from six months to longer than a year. The drugs cure the patient only about 75 per cent of the time and have debilitating side effects.
End-stage hepatitis C patients usually require a liver transplant, but the new liver soon becomes infected and the cycle of treatment-transplant eventually needs to be repeated.
Thibault believes her research could help people who are often marginalized in society.
"The population that benefits most from my research are intravenous drug users who don't get a voice in research."
Thibault is a graduate student in microbiology and immunology and is carrying out her research at the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization - International Vaccine Centre. The research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.
Tara Donovan is a graduate student writer with the Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge program of U of S Research Communications.
This article first ran as part of the 2012 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Communications office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.