A Look Back in History of Hepatitis C Discovery
Last updated: April 2022
A few days ago, I noticed a story featured on the front page of the University of Alberta website that caught my eye: University of Alberta virologist, Michael Houghton, is awarded the Nobel Prize for his co-discovery of the hepatitis C virus.1
It’s no doubt that this achievement is one of the greatest in hepatitis C history. In addition, it paved the way for subsequent initiation of protocols to improve blood safety, treatment, and advocacy. To understand how far we've come, we have to go back and see where we started.
Hepatitis A and B were the only two viruses thought to cause viral hepatitis. The viruses' incubation periods and mode of transmission was the only way to distinguish them initially. For example, for the individual who presented with a rapid symptom onset and a transmission by the fecal-oral route, he or she would receive a hepatitis A diagnosis.
Ongoing transfusion studies started to identify a pattern of something novel, yet unexplainable: a virus that did not follow the same incubation periods as hepatitis A or B. As well, people with this virus didn’t have the characteristic jaundice that people with hepatitis A and B typically presented with.
The development of serological assays, or antibody tests, made the distinction between hepatitis A and B confirmatory. However, there was still the unexplained presence of an agent that didn't react to either one of the hepatitis A or B tests. Scientists named this mysterious agent "non-A, non-B Hepatitis” (NANB).
In 1987, Michael Houghton, Qui-Lim Choo, and George Kuo used a novel method to identify the hepatitis C virus. Not only did they identify the virus, they also developed a diagnostic test.
Screening donated blood for hepatitis C became mandatory in some countries. Subsequently, this effectively eliminated hepatitis C transmission through the blood supply in North America. Hepatitis C associations and societies were founded, therefore marking this decade as a time of education and initiation of advocacy. Public health measures were implemented to prevent further transmission of the virus. The first drug used to treat hepatitis C, interferon, was approved. It was then approved for use in conjunction with ribavirin.
2010 was a tremendous, monumental decade of advocacy and advancement of treatment. Celebrities and known people in media started raising awareness of the virus. National guidelines were implemented, with emphasis on screening. The direct acting antiviral therapies, DAAs, were FDA approved, paving the way for greater number of treatment initiations and successes.2
While the journey to control and manage hepatitis C is not over, we have come a long way! This journey would not have been possible without the efforts of scientists and clinicians, communities such as HepatitisC.net, and people sharing their experiences, like you.