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International Team Including Hadassah Traces Hepatitis B Virus to 16th Century Korean Mummy

A research team including scientists from the Hadassah University Medical Center found traces of hepatitus B in this 16th century mummy.

The discovery of a mummified Korean child with relatively preserved organs enabled an Israeli-South Korean scientific team to conduct genetic analysis which revealed a hepatitis B virus that is common in Southeast Asia. The research team is comprised of scientists from the Hadassah University Medical Center's Liver Unit; the Hebrew University's Faculty of Medicine, Koret School of Veterinary Medicine, and the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment; and Dankook University and Seoul National University in South Korea.

With the viral DNA sequences recovered from a liver biopsy of the mummy, the scientists were able to map the entire ancient hepatitis B viral genome—the oldest full viral genome described in the scientific literature to date. Using modern-day molecular genetic techniques, the researchers compared the ancient DNA sequences with contemporary viral genomes and found distinct differences. The changes in the genetic code are believed to result from spontaneous mutations and possibly environmental pressures during the virus' evolutionary process. Based on the observed mutations rates over time, the analysis suggests that the reconstructed mummy's hepatitis B virus DNA had its origin between three to 100 thousand years ago.

The findings, reported in the May 21, 2012 edition of Hepatology, are the result of a collaborative effort among Dr. Gila Kahila Bar-Gal of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Koret School of Veterinary Medicine; Prof. Daniel Shouval, Director of the Liver Unit at Hadassah Hospital-Ein Kerem; Dr. Myeung Ju Kim of Dankook University, Seok Ju Seon Memorial Museum; Dr. Dong Hoon Shin of Seoul National University College of Medicine; Prof Mark Spigelman of the Hebrew University's Dept. of Parasitology; and Dr. Paul R. Grant of University College of London's Dept. of Virology.
The ancient HBV genomes can now serve as a model for future study of the evolution of chronic hepatitis B and help us understand how the virus spread, possibly from Africa to East Asia. The data may shed further light on the migratory pathway of hepatitis B in the Far East from China and Japan to Korea, as well as to other regions in Asia and Australia, where it is a major cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, there are over 400 million carriers of the virus worldwide, predominantly in Africa, China, and South Korea, where up to 15 percent of the people are carriers. In recent years, universal immunization of newborns against hepatitis B in Israel and South Korea has led to a massive decline in the incidence of infection.

Dr. Gila Kahila Bar-Gal

Prof. Daniel Shouval

Date: 6/15/2012

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