A Nobel win for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus



By the 1970s, it was well-known that hepatitis B, a virus-induced form of liver inflammation, spreads through blood and other bodily fluids. Despite this, a significant number of patients receiving blood transfusions were still developing hepatitis due to another, then-unknown infectious agent that also had the characteristics of a virus.


In the mid-1970s, IRP researchers led by Steve Feinstone, M.D., discovered the hepatitis A virus, which causes similar symptoms to hepatitis B but spreads through food and water. With that identification made, an IRP team led by Harvey Alter, M.D., was able to tease out hepatitis cases unrelated to either the A or B forms, ultimately defining a new, distinct form of chronic viral hepatitis, which was called at the time “non-A, non-B” hepatitis and later became known as hepatitis C.


This research was instrumental in leading to the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic agents for viral hepatitis, as well as providing the scientific basis for instituting blood donor screening programs that have decreased the incidence of transfusion-transmitted hepatitis to near zero and saved millions of lives. Dr. Alter won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions to the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.


Alter HJ, Holland PV, Purcell RH, Lander JJ, Feinstone SM, Morrow AG, Schmidt PJ. (1972). Posttransfusion hepatitis after exclusion of commercial and hepatitis-B antigen-positive donors. Ann Intern Med. Nov;77:691-699.

Feinstone SM, Kapikian AZ, Purcell RH, Alter HJ, Holland PV. (1975). Transfusion-associated hepatitis not due to viral hepatitis type A or B. N Engl J Med. Apr 10;292:767-770.

Alter HJ, Holland PV, Morrow AG, Purcell RH, Feinstone SM, Moritsugu Y. (1975). Clinical and serological analysis of transfusion-associated hepatitis. Lancet. Nov 1;2:838-841.

Alter HJ, Purcell RH, Holland PV, Popper H. (1978). Transmissible agent in non-A, non-B hepatitis. Lancet. Mar 4;1:459-463.

Choo QL, Kuo G, Weiner AJ, Overby LR, Bradley DW, Houghton M. Isolation of a cDNA clone derived from a blood-borne non-A, non-B viral hepatitis genome. (1989) Science. Apr 21;244:359-362.

Kuo G., Choo QL, Alter HJ, Gitnick GL, Redeker AG, Purcell RH, Miyamura T, Dienstag JL, Alter CE, Stevens CE, Tegtmeier GE, Bonino F, Colombo M, Lee WS, Kuo C., Berger K, Shuster JR, Overby LR, Bradley DW, Houghton M. (1989). An assay for circulating antibodies to a major etiologic virus of human non-A, non-B hepatitis. Science. Apr 21;244:362-364.

Kolykhalov AA, Agapov EV, Blight KJ, Mihalik K, Feinstone SM, Rice CM. (1997). Transmission of hepatitis C by intrahepatic inoculation with transcribed RNA. Science. Jul 25;277:570-574.