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Longevity Briefs: Nobel Prize In Physiology or Medicine Awarded For The Discovery Of Hepatitis C

Posted on 6 October 2020

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of a novel research, medicine, or technology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

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Why is this research important: Blood borne hepatitis viruses (hepatitis B and C) are insidious pathogens with which a person can be infected for many years without showing symptoms. These viruses cause inflammation in the liver, which can lead to severe damage and scarring, and to the development of liver cancer.

Hepatitis C is a global health problem, and an estimated 71·1 million individuals are chronically infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV). The global incidence of HCV was 23·7 cases per 100,000 population. Approximately 10–20% of individuals who are chronically infected with HCV develop complications, such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and hepatocellular carcinoma over a period of 20–30 years. Blood-borne hepatitis causes over a million deaths per year world-wide.

What did the researchers do: The efforts of Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice were all instrumental in the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. Harvey J. Alter first noted that despite screening for hepatitis B, many patients continued to develop hepatitis as a result of blood transfusion. He subsequently showed that the infectious agent responsible was a virus.

Michael Houghton used antibodies from these patients to identify DNA fragments belonging to the virus, and was able to show that it was a novel virus belonging to the Flavivirus family.

Finally, Charles M. Rice showed that some regions of the hepatitis C virus favoured viral replication, while other regions hindered it. Through genetic engineering, he showed that hepatitis C viruses with the pro-replication region, but none of the inhibitory regions, could cause disease in animals. This demonstrated that hepatitis C virus could be the sole cause of transfusion-mediated hepatitis.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: Thanks to these scientists’ work, we now have sensitive blood tests for hepatitis C, and have eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis from most parts of the world. Their discoveries also paved the way for the development of antiviral drugs that can cure hepatitis C, raising the possibility that we may one day eradicate this disease.

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