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Hepatitis C: A History Lesson

Hepatitis C history

Hepatitis C makes history

Last week’s blog I reviewed some of the basics of hepatitis C. This week, I discuss the history of the HCV virus.

The earliest reports of viral hepatitis were in the 5th century B.C. The physician, Hippocrates, of the famed Hippocratic Oath, reported outbreaks of jaundice in Greece. Jaundice outbreaks occurred during various wars, including the Civil War. These were likely due to hepatitis A and B, although these viruses had not yet been formally identified. In 1952, Joseph Stokes, Jr. lectured about two hepatitis viruses—hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis B was isolated in 1963; hepatitis A in 1973.

Soldiers returning from the Asian theaters in World War II and Korea had a high incidence of viral hepatitis. Vaccination practices to prevent Yellow Fever and other diseases contributed to viral transmission. However, scientists were aware of the existence of another virus that attacked the liver. Military personnel had the signs and symptoms of a hepatitis virus that acted somewhat differently that hepatitis A and B, which eventually became known as a third type of viral hepatitis.

This third type of viral hepatitis (which we now know was hepatitis C) was transmitted to many who served in Vietnam. The need for blood transfusions meant that medics, nurses and soldiers were exposed to hepatitis C-infected blood. Unsafe service-related vaccination programs also spread HCV. Some soldiers in the field and back home coped with trauma by turning to injection drug use, further spreading hepatitis C among those who shared drugs and related paraphernalia.

In the 1970’s, Harvey Alter and colleagues from the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that there was a post-transfusion hepatitis that was neither hepatitis A nor B. It was named non-A, non-B hepatitis. No one thought it posed much of a threat and patients were told not to worry about it. Interestingly, forward-looking researchers kept blood samples of many of the returning soldiers of World War II and by process of elimination diagnosed them with non-A, non-B hepatitis.

In 1989, researchers from Chiron Corporation, collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published research that identified HCV—the new name for non-A, non-B hepatitis. The credit for the discovery and subsequent patent awards are plagued with controversy and litigation. Michael Houghton and two colleagues from Chiron are credited with the discovery, although Daniel Bradley from the CDC played an important role. In 2000, Alter and Houghton received the prestigious Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research.

It has always been difficult to study hepatitis C in the laboratory since it is difficult to culture this virus—that is until now. Reporting in the journal Nature, Mohsan Saeed and colleagues have found an easy way to grow hep C in the lab. This could be a game changer.

However, the lack of an easy way to culture hep C has not stopped scientists from finding ways to cure this disease. Next week I will give a history of hepatitis C treatment.


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