The scientist who discovered hepatitis C in 1989 says he has now created a vaccine against the liver-destroying virus.

Michael Houghton, from the University of Alberta, said the vaccine was developed from a single strain but is effective against all known strains of the disease.

Dr Houghton started working on the project 10 years ago while he was working for the drug company Novartis.

Michael Houghton
Electron micrograph of hepatitis virions, which are etiologic agents for viral hepatitis

Dr Houghton (left) discovered hepatitis C in 1989. This electron micrograph (right) shows hepatitis virions, which cause the virus

The disease has caused a 'silent epidemic' in western countries. Figures published yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed more people died as a result of Hepatitis C than from Aids in the U.S in 2007.

'One of every 33 baby boomers are living with hepatitis C infection,' said CDC's Dr John Ward.

Left untreated it can cause scarring of the liver and ultimately to life-threatening cirrhosis. The U.S figures revealed there were 15,000 deaths related to the condition in 2007 - three-quarters of whom were middle aged.

The condition is unpredictable - while some may live with the condition their whole lives with only mild symptoms, others can develop serious liver disease even with treatment.

KNOW YOUR HEPATITIS A, B AND C

Hepatitis literally means the inflammation of the liver. It is usually caused by a virus, although alcohol excess can also be to blame.

The most common types of liver inflammation and infection are Hepatitis A, B and C...

Hepatitis A is spread by eating contaminated food or drinking water. It's most common in countries with poor hygiene standards. There is a vaccine.

Hepatitis B is usually passed on by exposure to infected blood. In developing countries it is mostly passed from mother to baby. In developed countries it's spread through sex and sharing drug needles.

It is 100 times more infectious than HIV, yet there is a vaccine to prevent infection.

Hepatitis C is also a ‘blood borne’ virus. It can be passed on through sexual contact but is most commonly shared through sharing drug needles. There is no vaccine.

Most people recover from hepatitis A with no lasting liver damage but B and C can cause long term liver disease, leading to cirrhosis and even liver cancer. In many cases there are no early warning symptoms until liver damage is advanced.

Source: The Sheila Sherlock Liver Centre

There is currently no vaccine in use to prevent infection in the first place.

But, speaking at the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Summit in Vancouver yesterday, Dr Houghton revealed his team is just five years away from creating a useable vaccine.

Dr Houghton and his co-investigator John Law discovered that they could use a single strain of the virus to draw out broad cross-neutralising antibodies against all the different major strains.

'This tells us that a vaccine made from a single strain can indeed neutralize all the viruses out there,' he said.

'It really encourages the further development of that vaccine. This is a really a big step forward for the field of HCV vaccinology.'

Hundreds of thousands of people are infected with hepatitis C annually around the world, with between 20 to 30 per cent developing some form liver disease.

However, Dr Houghton cautions that further testing is required, meaning that it may be five to seven years before the vaccine receives approval.

He added that while it may make some difference in those currently suffering from hepatitis C, the vaccine will mainly be a preventative measure against acquiring the disease.

Lorne Tyrrell, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute at the University of Alberta, said: 'We have a long way to go, but this is a great step.'