By Published: March 1, 2013

Ding Xue headshot

For more than 30 years, investigators have been seeking the culprit responsible for the deaths of 600,000 people annually. CU-Boulder professor Ding Xue of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and his team believe they may be close to cracking the case.

An insidious mass murderer of epic proportions, the hepatitis B virus (HBV) has infected two billion people worldwide and is up to 100 times more infectious than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

It can be spread by contact with blood from an infected person, by sexual contact with an infected person and from a mother to her unborn child. HBV is commonly seen in drug users, homosexual men and immigrants from countries in Asia and Southeast Asia where hepatitis B is common.

Early symptoms include poor appetite, nausea, aching muscles and joints and sometimes mild fever, and later, yellow skin. Chronic hepatitis B may eventually cause deadly cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Even more troubling, there’s no cure for chronic HBV. Once infected, there’s no way to rid the body of the virus.

In October Xue announced in the prestigious journal PNAS that he and his research team identified two “host targets” called Bcl-2 and Bcl-xL that help the virus spread.

“I’m quite optimistic this study can help lead to therapeutic treatments for chronic HBV patients,” Xue says.

He explains the key pathogenic component in the virus is a small protein responsible for viral reproduction in liver cells that can lead to liver inflammation and cancer.

“For a long time no one knew how it worked,” he says. “Now we can show that this protein interacts with two very important host targets to promote viral replication and other pathogenic events. This finding provides promising drug targets to treat HBV patients.”

Xue says it’s difficult to predict when a treatment would be available.

“We’ll try our best and hope that other scientists and pharmaceutical companies will join in the efforts,” he says.

Dr. Luis Gerardo Castellanos, a senior adviser to the Pan American Health Organization, an international public health organization, says Xue’s work “may be an important step in understanding the function of HBV X protein.”

Despite being one of the world’s major health problems, HBV study in the United States has been largely neglected and poorly funded, Xue says.

“It’s gratifying to know our research will potentially help and impact millions of people,” he says. “That’s really the ultimate goal and reward for a scientist devoted to basic research.”

Photo courtesy Casey A. Cass