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How the discovery of hepatitis C by an alberta researcher led to the Nobel Prize and saved lives

This year, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to virologists Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and to biochemist Michael Houghton for discovery of hepatitis C virus. This recognition is once again a fine example of the importance of doing basic research in order to face the ravages of viral diseases, which are responsible for millions of deaths around the world.

Written by John Bergeron

Professor Emeritus Robert Reford and Professor of Medicine, McGill University

Hepatitis C infection has resulted in around 400,000 deaths in 2016 according to the WHO. Similar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19, hepatitis C is an RNA virus. However, hepatitis C enters the body through the bloodstream, where it then attacks the liver to lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

No effective vaccine against the hepatitis C virus is yet available to date, but the fundamental scientific findings of the Nobel Prize winners have contributed to the development of antiviral drugs which today cure more than 95% of those infected. However, there is still a long way to go in order to improve accessibility to these treatments, especially in poorer countries.

The Chimpanzee n ° 910

In 1989, Houghton – along with biochemist Qui-Lim Choo, geneticist Amy Weiner, and virologists George Kuo, Lacy Overby and Daniel Bradley – reported the astonishing discovery of a new virus they named hepatitis C. At that time, nothing was known about this virus.

So how were these researchers able to decipher the experimental characteristics that identify this new virus? To do this, the team infected chimpanzees with serum from a patient diagnosed with hepatitis of unknown cause. The key experimental animal was a chimpanzee named # 910; DNA and RNA were extracted from his plasma.

Using the molecular biology techniques of the day, DNA complementary to nucleic acids extracted from the plasma of the chimpanzee was made in the test tube and then inserted into a bacterial virus known as bacteriophage lambda. These bacterial viruses are used to infect E. coli bacteria to make protein in large quantities.

The researchers used bacteriophages to reprogram the E. coli bacteria to produce specific proteins. Credit: Shutterstock

New discovery of a virus

Much to Houghton and his team’s amazement, the serum from a patient with hepatitis contained antibodies that recognized proteins produced in this way. These antibodies had detected a previously unknown deadly virus. Further experimentation with rigorous controls established unequivocally that this represented a new RNA virus. A blood test was developed to detect patients infected with this new virus that they had discovered.

In 1975, Harvey Alter discovered a fatal form of hepatitis in some patients who had received blood transfusions. Charles Rice later proved that the virus that Houghton and his colleagues had discovered was indeed the cause of this form of hepatitis.

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Biotech Nobels

The Nobel Prize rewards the work that Harvey Alter did at the biotechnology company Chiron Corporation. This is not the first Nobel Prize awarded to a biotechnology discovery – the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, method used today to test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus is also the result of a biotechnology discovery. This discovery was made by Kary Mullis, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1993 for his work at Cetus Corporation, one of the first biotechnology companies.

These innovative discoveries, illustrated by these two Nobel Prizes, herald a new direction in research thanks to the talents and resources deployed by biotechnology through venture capital.

Houghton and his team have developed a vaccine against hepatitis C which is currently in preclinical trials. He is also on the front line in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. His current research – funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – aim to develop a vaccine against the key protein of these viruses which infect millions of humans.

Houghton was recruited to Canada in 2010 in part as part of the Canada Excellence Research Chair program. Houghton’s 10 years in Edmonton as Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute have already leads to the development of drugs for hepatitis C, as well as other drugs that could lead to treating Covid-19.

Until recently, Canada’s health research leaders could be funded through the CIHR Foundation grant program. Unfortunately, this program which is now complete, jeopardizes the hope of maintaining excellence at its highest level in order to retain our best talents in discovery-driven research.

Hopefully, Houghton’s recognition in Alberta will strengthen efforts to support our pioneers across Canada as we navigate this Covid-19 crisis.

John Bergeron thanks Kathleen Dickson as co-author and Nathalie Lamarche-Vane (McGill University) for ideas, corrections and modifications. This article is a republication from the La Conversation site. Consult the original by clicking here