The History of Hep C

Hepatitis C (hep C) is a viral disease that impacts about 71 million people worldwide. Hep C often progresses without symptoms and can cause severe liver damage and failure. It is blood-borne, which means it spreads through contaminated blood. But as recently as the 1980s, doctors did not know what hep C was.1,2

Luckily, in the last 50 years, doctors and scientists have made significant discoveries related to hep C. Now it can be managed and cured in most people. In fact, hepatitis C was the first chronic virus that could be cured in humans.1,2

Discovery of hep C

In the 1970s, doctors started to notice a pattern of hepatitis in people who had blood transfusions. At the time, only hepatitis A and hepatitis B were known. So this condition was called non-A, non-B hepatitis (NANBH).1,2

In 1989, researchers were able to identify NANBH as hepatitis C. Their names are Harvey J. Alter, Charles M. Rice, and Michael Houghton. In 2020, they won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery.2,3

Alter, Rice, and Houghton identified hep C by first extracting the viral DNA. They put this DNA into bacteria and then used human immune cells to find the genetic sequence. The genetic sequence is the information that makes up the DNA. With this information, they could learn about the virus.2,3

Improvements in screening

After the 1989 discovery, scientists were able to make a screening test for hep C. Blood transfusions and other blood-based products were the main way hepatitis C spread. So screening the blood helped dramatically lower new hep C infections. One study found that for people who had had more than 10 blood transfusions, the risk of getting hep C fell from 16 percent to 3 percent after screening.2,3

Initial hep C treatments

Even before hep C was identified, there were some treatments. Doctors used an existing cancer treatment, interferon, to fight the virus. Interferon uses proteins in the immune system to fight infection.1,2

However, treatment with interferon was not ideal:1,2

  • Treatment could last up to 72 weeks.
  • Fewer than 1 in 5 people were cured.
  • Severe side effects kept some people from finishing the treatment.

Luckily, new drugs made treating hep C easier. For about 10 years, most people were treated with a combination of drugs. These were called pegylated interferon and ribavirin.1,2

Modern hep C treatments

From 1998 to 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 12 drugs to treat hep C. In 2011, a new type of drug called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) was introduced. DAAs are combination drugs that target the hep C virus while it reproduces. DAAs are much more effective than the older hep C drugs.1,2

Thanks to these advancements, today’s hep C treatments are very effective. Hep C drugs can now cure more than 9 out of 10 people in only 8 to 12 weeks. There are also no severe side effects.1,2

Because there is now a cure, the challenges of managing hep C have shifted. The goals now lie in diagnosing more people and making treatments more available. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a goal of eventually fully eliminating hep C.1,2

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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