Background of the Hepatitis C Research Initiative

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Infection and Immunity (CIHR-III) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) are working collaboratively to support, promote and enhance hepatitis C associated research and training in Canada.

Hepatitis C is a global health problem with an estimated 170 million people infected worldwide. In Canada, the PHAC estimates that 242,500 people are currently infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and in 2012 over 10,000 new cases were reported. Injection drug use is the most significant exposure route for HCV in Canada, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of all HCV infections. Although some are able to overcome the virus, the majority of persons infected with HCV are chronically infected. Following a long latency period of one to three decades, up to one-third of those infected are expected to develop cirrhosis followed by end stage liver disease. There is currently no vaccine to prevent HCV infection, and current therapies can be very expensive. As a result, the burden of HCV on health-care and social systems is considerable and therefore prevention and the need to control hepatitis C transmission cannot be overemphasized. Such a focus requires collaboration between researchers and practitioners from multiple disciplines and health research pillars.

A joint 5-year hepatitis C research initiative was launched in 1999 as part of the federal government’s response to the Krever Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada.

The PHAC-CIHR Joint Hepatitis C Research Initiative sought to fund a broad-based research agenda aimed at supporting hepatitis C research projects to further understand HCV infection and reduce the burden of hepatitis C through the generation, application and use of new knowledge. Research in the areas of virus biology, pathogenesis and epidemiology, screening and diagnostic technology, the natural history of the disease, treatment strategies, quality of life issues, and preventive measures was supported.

There was also a focus on expanding Canada’s research capacity in hepatitis C through training, and on knowledge dissemination and uptake. Subsequent agreements have built upon that early effort and maintained the momentum that the initiative has generated. The result is a solid foundation for HCV research in Canada.

In 2004, additional funds were provided to CIHR for 2 years to maintain momentum the initiative had generated and to support the ongoing hepatitis C research projects and in 2006, funds were provided to support a training program focused on Hepatitis C research.

In 2008, as part of the federal government’s commitment to a renewed hepatitis C research program, the partnership between PHAC and CIHR was renewed with a 7-year agreement that supported hepatitis C research until 2015, by investing $6 million in the areas of clinical and biomedical research; psychosocial, behavioural and epidemiological research, and hepatitis C-specific training opportunities.

In 2014, PHAC and CIHR renewed their partnership again until 2020 with a joint five-year agreement. This investment of close to $5 million supports research in two overarching streams: biomedical and clinical research; and research with direct public health relevance. The primary objective of this investment is to create a cohesive, collaborative research program in Canada that links researchers, knowledge users and decision makers from multiple pillars and jurisdictions across the country.

In total, over $23 million has been invested in hepatitis C research since 1999 through this partnership.

The PHAC/CIHR Hepatitis C Research Initiative is addressing a major global health concern. Together, PHAC and CIHR are implementing an important research strategy with clearly defined research priorities to address an important infectious disease problem.