Local search for hepatitis B cure gets $25m grant

Team to study 2,500 hepatitis B patients; one in 35 adult S'poreans has the virus

A local research team in search of a cure for hepatitis B has been given a $25 million grant by the National Medical Research Council.

The money will fund studies into the mechanisms behind the hepatitis B virus, as well as how a person's genes or immune system might help clear the virus from the body.

According to the Health Promotion Board, an estimated one in 35 adult Singaporeans has the hepatitis B virus, which leads to a higher risk of developing liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. Symptoms of the virus include jaundice, nausea, dark urine and pale stool.

In Singapore, the virus causes 45 per cent of liver cancer cases and 63 per cent of liver cirrhosis cases - which leads to the hardening or scarring of the liver .

There is a vaccine that can prevent the infection, which has been given to babies under the National Childhood Immunisation Programme since 1987. However, it cannot help patients already infected with the virus, who have to be put on lifelong medication.

Unlike other chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, though, hepatitis B can be cured, said lead researcher Lim Seng Gee, a hepatology expert with the National University Health System, while announcing the grant yesterday.

According to a study in Taiwan, there is a 45 per cent chance that hepatitis B carriers can be cured of the infection naturally without treatment, over a span of 25 years.

The key is to understand why it occurs only for certain people, said Dr Lee Guan Huei, a consultant from the gastroenterology and hepatology division at the National University Hospital.

"By understanding what causes this, we hope we can shorten the time taken for the body be cured of the virus to one to two years through new therapies," he said.

An integral part of the team's research will be a study of 2,500 hepatitis B patients, aged 18 to 65, who have never been treated for the infection. They will be monitored over five years through blood tests, ultrasound and other tests.

The team of 29 researchers is also conducting a clinical trial on interferon, a treatment that stimulates the immune system in hepatitis B patients who are already on oral antiviral medication.

Researchers hope to have some preliminary developments from the studies in the next three years.

•Those interested in participating in the team's studies can call 6772-4447 or 9889-4164, or e-mail enquiries.heal@gmail.com.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline Local search for hepatitis B cure gets $25m grant. Subscribe