For the first time in almost a century, a scientist working in Canada has won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
That achievement by Michael Houghton, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Applied Virology at the University of Alberta, is remarkable in itself, and it didn’t get nearly enough media attention because of the never-ending Trump coronavirus madness. (Dr. Houghton, who is British, shared the prize with two Americans, Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus.)
History buffs will know that Frederick Banting won the world’s most prestigious prize in medicine in 1923 for his discovery of insulin, along with James Macleod, both of whom were working at the University of Toronto.
David Hubel was also co-winner of 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for mapping the brain’s visual cortex. While he was born and educated in Canada, he spent his entire career in the U.S.
What deserves to be spotlighted even more than the rarity of Dr. Houghton’s win, though, are the scientific findings and the process that led to the discovery, which has had a far-reaching global impact.
As the Nobel Prize committee noted in its citation, the discovery of the hepatitis C virus will ultimately save millions of lives. HCV is a common cause of liver cancer and one of the principal reasons people need liver transplants.
Now, we are able to screen for hepatitis C to keep it from being transmitted by blood transfusion. Prior to discovery, a transfusion was like Russian roulette. (In Canada alone, an estimated 30,000 people were infected with HCV tainted blood between the time the virus was discovered and testing was instituted, and 250,000 people are living with the infection today.)
Hepatitis C can also be cured using antiviral drugs. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world,” the prize committee wrote.
That is astonishing, considering that an estimated 70 million people worldwide are living with the virus, which still kills about 400,000 people a year.
At a time when there is intense political pressure for scientists to find a coronavirus vaccine in double-quick time, we should humbly remember that there is no hepatitis C vaccine, and not for lack of trying. (There are vaccines to protect against hepatitis A and hepatitis B.)
In fact, hepatitis, whose most visible symptom is jaundice, has been around for millennia – first described by Hippocrates more than 2,500 years ago.
And, over time, there have been many theories about its origins, some more colourful than others. In 1759, for example, Hieronymus Gaubius postulated that jaundice was an “ailment caused by love,” a polite way of saying sexually transmitted. (A tidbit from medical historian and Queen’s University professor emerita Dr. Jacalyn Duffin’s book, Lovers and Livers.)
In the 1940s, when transfusions became commonplace in wartime, it became clear that jaundice could be transmitted by another bodily fluid, blood.
But the viruses that cause hepatitis A and hepatitis B weren’t discovered until the 1960s. What puzzled physicians and scientists was that transfusion patients kept getting sick even when those pathogens were screened out.
Dr. Rice, in 1972, showed there was another source of infection, which he named non-A non-B hepatitis. In lab tests, he was able to infect chimpanzees, demonstrating that it was blood-borne.
Dr. Houghton’s role was to try and identify the elusive virus, using new molecular-biology tools. That process took seven years. Dr. Houghton and his team – he was working at Chiron Corp. in California at the time – failed 40 times before they succeeded in 1989. It would take a couple of more years to develop a blood test that could be used to screen out HCV-tainted blood.
Dr. Rice later identified a key part of the viral genome that proved definitively that HCV caused illness, which in turn, led to the development of antiviral drugs.
This is how science works – not with a single “Eureka!” moment, but with years of tough slogging.
And the way public policy should work to give life to these monumental discoveries is by acting on them.
Yet, Canada doesn’t have a plan to treat hepatitis C on a large scale or to eliminate it. It should.
What better way to honour Dr. Houghton’s once-in-a-century Nobel Prize?
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