Q&A — Virologist Charles M. Rice
A scientist whose work was key to identifying, studying and finding treatments for this life-threatening virus discusses the scientific journey and challenges that persist
A, B, C, D, E: It’s a short, menacing alphabet representing the five types of virus causing viral hepatitis, a sickness afflicting some 400 million people around the world today.
Hepatitis viruses are a set of very different pathogens that kill 1.4 million people annually and infect more than HIV and the malaria pathogen do combined. Most of the deaths are from cirrhosis of the liver or hepatic cancer due to chronic infections with hepatitis viruses B or C, picked up through contact with contaminated blood.
Hepatitis B was the first of the five to be discovered, in the 1960s, by biochemist Baruch S. Blumberg. Hepatitis A, which is most commonly spread through contaminated food and water, was next, discovered in 1973 by researchers Stephen Mark Feinstone, Albert Kapikian and Robert Purcell.
Screening tests for those two types of viruses paved the way to discovering a third. In the 1970s, hematologist Harvey Alter examined unexplained cases of hepatitis in patients after blood transfusions and found that only 25 percent of such cases were caused by the hepatitis B virus, and none were linked to the hepatitis A virus.