Research into Africa’s first ‘screen-and-treat’ programme for hepatitis B suggests that the initiative may reduce deadly complications of the virus.
The new findings from researchers at a number of international institutions suggest that the initiative is also cost-effective. The region most affected by hepatitis B is Sub-Saharan Africa, where 80 million people are infected.
To catch hepatitis infection earlier, before it causes conditions such as liver damage or cancer, the research team ran a pilot study testing people for the virus in communities in The Gambia, West Africa.
The programme, called PROLIFICA (Prevention of Liver Fibrosis and Cancer in Africa) was carried out between December 2011 and January 2014 in a collaboration between Imperial College London, the MRC Unit The Gambia, the Gambian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and the National Public Health Laboratories. In the so-called ‘screen and treat’ programme, the team used a cheap instant test to screen 6,000 people for the virus and referred infected individuals for further liver tests and treatment.
The study found that 9% of individuals and 13% of potential blood donors tested positive for the hepatitis B virus. However, of those screened only 4% of the individuals tested were deemed to have infection severe enough to require treatment with antivirals. Dr Stefan Wiktor, lead of the Global Hepatitis Programme at the World Health Organisation, said: “We recently adopted a global strategy with a goal to eliminate hepatitis infection by 2030. To reach this goal, we will need innovative approaches, such as that developed by the PROLIFICA team, to provide testing and treatment services to as many people as possible.”
Research increases gene understanding
Francis Crick Institute scientists have discovered that a gene in fruit flies called ‘spidey’ regulates a key lipid-metabolising enzyme involved in cell growth and proliferation.
Researchers found that spidey is important for keeping the brake on PI3K, preventing it from driving the inappropriate overgrowth of liver-like cells called oenocytes. The work may be helpful in treating tumours.
Alex Gould of the Crick, who led a team including scientists at the University of Nevada, said: “Our findings used the power of fruit fly genetics to identify a new regulator of the lipid-metabolising enzyme phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K). PI3K is an important enzyme as it drives the growth and proliferation of many types of cells including cancer cells.”
Funding creates opportunities for African scientists
African research teams in Ivory Coast, Kenya, Senegal and Uganda have been awarded support to conduct world class health research and train the next generation of the continent’s scientists.
The Wellcome Trust has committed a further £21 million to the DELTAS Africa initiative, which aims to improve health in Africa through research.
Four new research programmes will address a range of health needs, from emerging infectious diseases to neonatal health, population health and elimination of malaria.