The challenge: After hepatitis A and B were discovered, a new virus emerged that could not be identified through traditional methods of viral detection. This new virus was frequently transmitted through blood transfusion, possibly leading to serious consequences such as cirrhosis (liver scarring), liver failure and even death.
The work: The combined research of these scientists led to the isolation and discovery of the hepatitis C virus and subsequent, preventative screening tests which have virtually eliminated the spread of the virus through blood-transfusions.
Why it matters: Chronic hepatitis C virus affects approximately 150 million people worldwide and can lead to liver failure, liver cancer and even death. In fact, over 350,000 people, globally, die each year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases. Diagnosis of the hepatitis C virus is now a reality and has led to treatment which can cure most patients. In hepatitis B virus and HIV infections, treatment can only control the virus, whereas in hepatitis C, treatment can eradicate the virus completely.
Dr. Harvey Alter earned his medical degree at the University of Rochester Medical School, and trained in internal medicine at Strong Memorial Hospital and at the University of Washington Hospital in Seattle. In 1961, he came to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a clinical associate. He then spent several years at Georgetown University, returning to NIH in 1969 to join the Clinical Center's Department of Transfusion Medicine as a senior investigator, later becoming Chief of Clinical Studies and Associate Director of Research in the Department of Transfusion Medicine at the NIH Clinical Center. Dr. Alter co-discovered the Australia antigen, a key to detecting hepatitis B virus. Later, Dr. Alter spearheaded a project at the Clinical Center that created a storehouse of blood samples used to uncover the causes and reduce the risk of transfusion-associated hepatitis. He was principal investigator on studies that identified non-A, non-B hepatitis, now called hepatitis C. His work was instrumental in providing the scientific basis for instituting blood donor screening programs that have decreased the incidence of transfusion-transmitted hepatitis to near zero. Dr. Alter was also awarded the Clinical Lasker Award in 2000. In 2002, he became the first Clinical Center scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). That same year, Dr. Alter was also elected to the Institute of Medicine.