11th James HS Gear Memorial Lecture

Patrick Arbuthnot delivered the 11TH JAMES HS GEAR MEMORIAL LECTURE, entitled ADVANCING GENE THERAPY TO COUNTER THE GLOBAL IMPACT OF INFECTION WITH HEPATITIS B VIRUS hosted by the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation on Monday, 14 November 2016.

Arbuthnot is a Personal Professor and the Director of the Wits/SAMRC Antiviral Gene Therapy Research Unit in the School of Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University. He was a James Gear postdoctoral Fellow in Necker, France, from 1992 to 1994 and has filed six patents on research topics that relate to gene therapies for treating viral infections.

Fifty years of Hepatitis B virus
The first marker of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) was discovered in 1965 by mathematician-turned-geneticist, Baruch S. Blumberg (1925–2011). He travelled widely and collected many samples of blood. His main research interest was in variations in humans that led to different susceptibilities to illness.
It was by chance that in 1964, Barbara Walter’s observations linked Au Ag to HBV. Blumberg subsequently discovered the ‘Australian antigen’ from an Aborigine. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1976 for “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases”.

After discovering HBV, Blumberg was able to:

  • identify asymptomatic carriers of HBV (those who carried the virus but did become sick from it)
  • establish the link between HBV and liver cancer
  • improve the safety of blood transfusions
  • develop a vaccine

“Hepatitis B virus is a very important global health problem at the moment. A study published in Lancet in September 2016, The global burden of viral hepatitis from 1990 to 2013: findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 cites an increase in the number of deaths from HBV and HCV from 0.89 million in 1990 to 1.45 million in 2013. Although the increase in mortality is mainly ascribed to the increase in population sizes in the areas where the virus most commonly occurs, the numbers remain staggering.

In 1997 HBV ranked tenth among global causes of death and advanced to seventh place in 2014 – higher than Tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS.

In April 2016, Arbuthnot co-authored a paper, entitled: Progress With Developing Use of Gene Editing To Cure Chronic Infection With Hepatitis B Virus, to advance gene therapy.

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Photo: Prof Lynn Morris, Prof Patrick Arbuthnot & Prof Caroline Tiemessen