Hepatitis, a combination of the Greek words for liver and inflammation, is caused by viral infections, alcohol abuse, environmental toxins, or autoimmune diseases. Hepatitis A usually has a short-term impact on patients and is transmitted by polluted water or food. However, blood-borne hepatitis can lead to a chronic condition with the development of liver cancer and cirrhosis putting the patient’s life in great danger. It is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids and causes more than a million deaths per year worldwide. This year, the Nobel Prize is awarded to scientists who made significant progress in understanding blood-borne hepatitis.
As a senior investigator at the NIH, Harvey J. Alter joined the clinical center’s department of Transfusion Medicine in 1969 to study the occurrence of hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions. His extensive study and research of transfusion-associated hepatitis over the decades showed instead of Hepatitis-A, it was an unknown virus that was the cause of chronic hepatitis. At the time, this mysterious illness was named ‘non-A, non-B’ Hepatitis.
The identification of this unknown virus was made possible by Micheal Houghton who at the time was working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron. His team used an untested strategy and worked tirelessly to isolate the genetic sequence of this unknown virus. Following a comprehensive search, it was found that the unknown virus was from a group of the novel RNA virus belonging to the Flavivirus family and was named Hepatitis-C. Finally, in order to know if the Hepatitis-C virus alone could cause hepatitis in patients, Charles M. Rice, a researcher at Washington University observed genetic variations in isolated virus samples and provided evidence for the transmission of the virus in patients.
The work of these scientists is a significant achievement in the fight against viral diseases worldwide. Due to the discoveries of these scientists, highly sensitive blood tests of Hepatitis-C are now available which has essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world. In addition to that, anti-viral drugs targeted at Hepatitis-C are being rapidly developed so that this deadly disease could be cured. Hepatitis C is still a major global health concern; however, now there is more hope and opportunity to eliminate and cure this disease entirely.