The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has issued a new three-part strategic plan for ramping up research into hepatitis B virus (HBV) in hopes of developing a cure. Integral to the NIH’s Strategic Plan for Trans-NIH Research to Cure Hepatitis B is not only developing a more refined scientific understanding of the virus but also better means of delivering testing to those at risk and treatment to those with chronic infection.

Despite the availability of a vaccine for HBV for the past four decades, millions of people worldwide continue to contract the virus each year, and some 600,000 people die of HBV-related complications annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An estimated 850,000 to 2 million people in the United States and 257 million people worldwide have chronic hep B, according to the World Health Organization.

Antiviral medications, including Viread (tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), Vemlidy (tenofovor alafenamide) and Baraclude (entecavir), can suppress HBV, but they usually do not lead to a cure and must be taken for years or even for life. Over the past years, however, there have been scientific advancements in the search for a cure for the virus.

The NIH’s new HBV plan grew out of input from academics, patient advocacy organizations, private and nonprofit organizations, governmental organizations and NIH-funded clinical trial networks. The plan builds upon the existing hep B research funded by the federal agency as well as the U.S. National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan.

The plan centers on three research priorities.

First, the plan pushes for a greater comprehension of the biology of HBV, including factors related to the virus and people with the infection that drive disease, immunity, reactivation and transmission. Coinfections with other forms of viral hepatitis, including hepatitis C virus (HCV) and hepatitis delta virus (HDV), as well as HIV, are also important areas for study.

The second emphasis is on academics developing and sharing various tools and resources that can support their research and the development of new treatments. This includes establishing new animal models for studying the course of liver disease and mother-to-child transmission of HBV as well as finding new biological markers associated with the progression of disease and response to treatment.

The third and final priority is to search for HBV cure strategies. Avenues to a cure could involve blocking the replication of the virus, stimulating immune responses or eliminating infected cells. A successful cure strategy also requires public health efforts to drive up testing for the virus, providing access to vaccination in underserved areas and ensuring that people who have HBV receive follow-up care and support in adhering to treatment.

To read an NIH press release about the plan, click here.

To read the plan, click here.