Institute’s Hafenstein receives $85K grant to study Hepatitis E

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, April 9, 2024

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Susan Hafenstein, PhD, Professor and CryoEM Director at The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota, is the recipient of a six-month, $85,000 grant from Nationwide Children’s Hospital (National Institutes of Health).

This support will enable the Hafenstein lab to use cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) and tomography (cryoET) to study the structure and functions of the hepatitis E virus (HEV), which could help lead to the development of new treatment and preventative measures against HEV hepatitis.

Hepatitis E is an inflammation of the liver caused by infection with HEV. Of an estimated 20 million HEV infections that occur worldwide, approximately 3.3 million symptomatic cases of hepatitis E occur annually, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Hepatitis E caused an estimated 44,000 deaths in 2015, accounting for 3.3% of the mortality caused by viral hepatitis. Although a hepatitis E vaccine has been approved for use in China, there is not yet an approved vaccine option in the United States.

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While rare in the United States, hepatitis E is more common in low- and middle-income countries. The virus is often transmitted when fecal matter containing HEV makes its way into drinking water sources but has also been transmitted by consuming certain raw or undercooked foods, such as pork, shellfish, wild boar, or venison.

When symptoms occur, they are often similar to those experienced with other types of acute viral hepatitis or liver injuries, including fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, and joint and stomach pain.

Patients with hepatitis E are often advised to wait for the disease to resolve on its own. While it often does so in a matter of several weeks, consequences can be more severe for those who already experience chronic liver conditions or are immunocompromised. Among people who are in their later trimesters of pregnancy, an otherwise low mortality rate of about 1% rises to 10-30%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The research supported by this grant intends to pave the way toward more effective treatments and preventative measures. CryoEM and cryoET studies at The Hormel Institute will allow the researchers to map and study the structure of HEV at the near-atomic level.

In taking such an up-close look at HEV, the Hafenstein lab seeks to better understand the mechanisms it uses to interact with host cells to gain entry, as well as how the host, in turn, responds to infection. Tracking the virus over the course of infection will allow them to learn its mechanisms and better understand its pathogenicity, or the way an organism is able to cause disease and harm its host, to identify its potential vulnerabilities.

The long-term goal for the Hafenstein lab in studying hepatitis E is to identify ways to manage infection as well as targets for possible antivirals and biologics.