11 October 2014
They don’t in fact hurl wood, nor, despite the reputation of one named Punxsutawney Phil, are they capable of predicting local weather. But harbouring a close relative of the human-infecting hepatitis B virus (HBV) means that the multi-monikered woodchuck, groundhog or marmot does play a role in medical research. A chronically infected [having the virus for a long time] woodchuck may go on to develop liver cancer – as may someone with a chronic HBV infection. By studying the woodchuck scientists devised a highly sensitive method to detect viral DNA. DNA was unearthed even in animals without symptoms, or signs of the virus in the blood serum, but that went on to develop liver tumours years later. In some people with liver cancer, the usual serum tests for HBV prove negative and no underlying cause is evident. Work with woodchucks has shown that hidden HBV could be at the root.
Written by Lindsey Geoff