Join me and the AASLD in congratulating Drs. Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice, the 2020 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology for Medicine. Their groundbreaking research identified the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) – a bloodborne pathogen that causes acute and chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer – and laid the foundation for the future development of a cure. Today, we are "living this future."
This is a story of creativity, persistence, and complementary approaches to achieve a shared goal. Dr. Alter’s identification of “non-A, non-B” hepatitis was the first momentous step toward the recognition that an unknown infectious agent was causing chronic hepatitis and liver disease in recipients of blood transfusions. Building on that knowledge, Dr. Houghton applied recombinant DNA technology to express viral proteins and performed large-scale in vitro screens with serum from infected patients to identify a novel flavivirus: the HCV. In proof-of-principle experiments, Dr. Rice used genetic engineering to demonstrate that the HCV alone could cause hepatitis chimpanzees. Three giant steps from an unidentified infectious agent to a highly characterized virus to a cure for a condition that affects more than 70 million persons globally.
The translation of their work has been hugely impactful. The development of serologic tests for the virus has nearly eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis throughout the world. The knowledge gained from a detailed understanding of the mechanisms of viral replication has led directly to the development of antiviral drugs that cure HCV infection in nearly all patients and have already reduced attributable morbidity and mortality. Because of their work, we can now envision global elimination of HCV.
The AASLD is proud to have served as a professional home for Drs. Alter, Houghton, and Rice. Their continuing participation in our meetings and educational efforts have enriched us all. In recognition of their contribution to the field, Dr. Alter and Dr. Rice received the AASLD Distinguished Achievement Awards in 2011 and 2015, respectively. Their milestone accomplishments are certain to inspire current and future generations of hepatologists and we share this year’s Laureates’ commitment to prevent and cure liver disease.
Jorge A. Bezerra, MD, FAASLD
American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases