Moorman receives grant to study role of ‘Natural Killers’ in hepatitis C


JOHNSON CITY (November 26, 2013) – Two physician scientists at East Tennessee State University’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine and the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) who are investigating hepatitis C have received a $438,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study a new path of defense against the virus.

Dr. Jonathan Moorman, division chief of Infectious Diseases in the ETSU Department of Internal Medicine, is principal investigator on the project. Moorman, also section chief at the Quillen VAMC, is collaborating with Dr. Zhi Q. “John” Yao, an ETSU associate professor of Internal Medicine and director of the Hepatitis Program at the Quillen VAMC. The two have studied hepatitis C together since 2000 and received a funding grant of $1.4 million from NIH last year.

Moorman and Yao are focused on advancing research in hepatitis C because current treatments are effective in only about half of patients. And, despite the fact that there is no therapeutic cure, about 15 percent of patients with the virus self-cure – a strong suggestion that a therapeutic cure is attainable.

The new grant funding will enable Moorman to study the interaction of a protein called Tim-3 and cells called “Natural Killers,” or NK cells. Yao and Moorman have already demonstrated that Tim-3 plays a part in disrupting the body’s normal resistance to chronic viral infections by exhausting T cells, a vital cog in the immune response.

Studies have shown that people with chronic hepatitis C have compromised NK cell function. Working from that information, Moorman and Yao have observed a new finding: Tim-3 expression is up-regulated and leads to programmed death of NK cells in people with hepatitis C.

‘“Natural Killers’ are a first line of defense to prevent infection, and that line of defense is compromised in individuals with chronic hepatitis C,” Moorman said. “Our hypothesis is that by blocking the Tim-3 signaling on NK cells, we’ll be able to rescue this impaired immune response to hepatitis C. If we can get a better handle on how Tim-3 up-regulation alters the immune response, it could lead to more effective strategies to fight the disease.”

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