A team at two regional universities has identified an “assembly code” in the makeup of the virus which allows it to create a protective casing in which it can produce new infectious particles.
Hepatitis B occurs in Europe and the USA but is most prevalent in Asia. In 2004, an estimated 350m people were infected, and although a vaccination exists, there is no cure.
The virus is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. It is thought that more than two billion people have been infected worldwide, and around 350m remain carriers of the infection, which can, in time, prove fatal.
Professor Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist at the University of York, said the new discovery of “packing signals” could lead to a cure within a decade.
She said: “It is an exciting discovery. Many people had tried for years to find the signals. They thought that if signals were present they must be visible - but we are now understanding better how the virus works.
“It’s a bit like the chain on a bicycle. If we don’t assemble the chain on the sprockets, it becomes tangled and won’t function. Once assembled correctly, it connects the pedals with the wheels allowing the component parts to work together.”
Prof Twarock, whose team worked with scientists at Leeds University, added: “A lot of things still need to happen before we have a cure. But the fact that we can now initiate the work at all is an improvement.”
Hepatitis B is known to progress rapidly once contracted, often necessitating liver transplants and the use of expensive drugs to mitigate the symptoms.
The two universities have taken out a patent on the new discovery, and are working with commercial partners and the National Institutes of Health in the USA,to identify drugs that could halt viral replication.
Prof Peter Stockley, from Leeds University, said: “We often compare the disease to HIV due to the way in which the virus is passed from person-to-person. But unlike HIV there are no effective drugs to improve quality of life outcomes.
“Now that we know how the virus assembles, we can interrupt the interactions – a bit like when a twig catches the sprocket on a bike, knocking the chain off.”