For the discovery of the virus that causes hepatitis C and the development of screening methods that reduced the risk of blood transfusion-associated hepatitis in the U.S. from 30% in 1970 to virtually zero in 2000.
Thirty years ago, the blood transfusion intended to save your life might have killed you. About a third of transfused people received tainted blood, which later inflamed their livers, producing a condition known as hepatitis. To combat this problem, Harvey Alter spearheaded a project at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) aimed at uncovering the causes and reducing the risk of transfusion-associated hepatitis. Because of his work, the US instituted blood- and donor-screening programs that made a massive impact on the safety of the blood supply.
But Alter also discovered that these efforts left a large residual pool of contaminated blood. He studied the associated disease and established it as an important clinical problem. He called it “non-A, non-B hepatitis” (NANBH) because it was caused by an agent other than the two hepatitis viruses known at the time. Vigorous efforts in dozens of laboratories failed to identify the presumptive virus that caused it. Eventually, a Chiron Corporation team led by Michael Houghton exploited the blossoming methods of molecular biology to isolate the virus. Without any distinctive molecular markers or chemicals to flag the virus, they tracked it down. Today the risk of acquiring transfusion-associated hepatitis has dropped to almost zero.
Michael Houghton, Joseph Goldstein, Harvey Alter
Award presentation by Leon Rosenberg
Thirty years ago the blood transfusion intended to save your life might have caused your death. Each transfusion — now numbering more than 15 million in the United States annually — had about a one-in-three chance of being tainted by infection, leading to hepatitis (that is, inflammation of the liver) which often resulted in cirrhosis of the liver, a leading cause of liver failure and liver cancer. Today, thanks to the work of many, but particularly the work of Harvey Alter and his colleagues at NIH, and of Michael Houghton and his team at the Chiron Corporation, the risk of transfusion-associated hepatitis is virtually zero. This public health triumph resulted from medical research spanning the full range of approaches from basic to disease-oriented to patient-oriented, from molecular biology to immunology to epidemiology. Here’s a glimpse of how this huge problem was solved.