December 2, 2008

Elizabeth Clearfield ’09 Helps Search for a Cure for Hepatitis B

Biology major performs drug research as a summer intern for the national Hepatitis B Foundation

Biology major Elizabeth Clearfield ’09 (Southampton, Pa.) spent her summer researching potential cures for the hepatitis B virus as an intern with the Hepatitis B Foundation at the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center.

This summer I had the privilege and honor to be selected as a summer intern at the Hepatitis B Foundation at the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center in Doylestown, Pa., a unique opportunity that I discovered through Lafayette Career Services. Though there is an effective vaccine, about 400 million people worldwide still suffer from chronic hepatitis B. This is a most pressing matter, as hepatitis B virus is a major cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer. The Hepatitis B Foundation is a national non-profit organization dedicated to finding a cure and improving the quality of life for those affected by hepatitis B.

I worked under the direction of Dr. Andy Cuconati in a small scale drug discovery with a compound library of 80,288 compounds. Dr. Cuconati tests these compounds as potential drugs for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B. Current therapies for chronic hepatitis B are targeted at reducing viral replication, but there is another important pathway of the hepatitis B virus that deserves study as a potential drug target.

Chronic hepatitis B is characterized by both viral replication and high levels of hepatitis B surface antigen in the blood. These are non-infectious subviral particles that are released by infected cells and serve to distract the immune system from the specific hepatitis B response. These secretions also cause inflammation in the liver, which is believed to play a part in the development of liver cancer in chronically infected patients. The goal in the lab has been to identify compounds that inhibit the secretion of these subviral particles.

My project this summer was to test one of these potential drugs. I tested the compound on seven different cell lines, both human and nonhuman cells, cancerous and noncancerous. We needed to learn as much about this compound as possible, especially if different types of cells responded in the same way. I spent the first week reading peer reviewed journal articles and learning about the hepatitis B virus.

The next few weeks were dedicated to teaching me the ins and outs of lab work, and preparing me to work independently on my project. I learned how to transfect the virus into cells that would later be tested with the compound. I became an expert at cell culture, maintaining my cell lines until they were ready to be used in an experiment. I tested the compound in different concentrations and then measured whether the secretion of hepatitis B surface antigen secretion was inhibited. I also performed a two week long withdraw experiment in order to study how the cells responded when the drug was removed.

My summer at the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center provided me with a chance to dive into medical research that has the potential to help millions of people. I also became confident working in a lab and making decisions about experiments. In addition, I had the opportunity to attend weekly journal clubs and presentations by guest speakers. The other interns and I were able to engage in dialogues about science while building friendships and even collaborating on ideas. We wrapped up our summer with a day of presentations where we shared our work with the rest of the foundation.

  • Biology
  • Internship/Externships

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