The hepatitis C virus is believed to have links to the growth of liver cancer, but those connections have been hard to study. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill research aimed at learning more about those connections has secured a $2.35 million federal grant.

The five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute will enable two UNC researchers to combine their respective research efforts.

Lishan Su, a professor of microbiology and immunology, has developed a laboratory model that closely replicates how the disease progresses in humans. He will work with Stanley Lemon, a professor of medicine and microbiology who has been working to understand how genetic changes in the hepatitis C virus affects the progression of disease, such as liver cancer.

Lemon said that a number of studies have documented that inflammation plays a role in liver cancer, but evidence suggests that there is more that is happening.

“We believe that the virus is interacting specifically with host cell tumor suppressor pathways to promote cancer, and we want to understand what drives this progression from infection to cancer in order to figure out how to stop it,” Lemon said in a statement.

Hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood-borne infection in the United States and affects approximately 3.2 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It kills more Americans each year than HIV/AIDS.

Liver cancer is the third-leading cause of death from cancer worldwide and the ninth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Most of those cases come from hepatitis virus infections.