The race to find a cure for hepatitis C infection is largely won. What is needed now is for all Baby Boomers and others at high risk for this disease to get screened.
In mass media and popular culture, medical research is often framed as a race to overcome a complex, seemingly insurmountable challenge, with lives hanging in the balance.
Enter the team of scientists in white lab coats, working around the clock to cure HIV, eradicate cancers or make Alzheimer’s a thing of the past. This sort of narrative is dramatic, hopeful and in line with what some expect of science, but the reality is that progress is far more incremental.
Michael Houghton’s “race” started 35 years ago in a San Francisco-area lab where he was part of the team that first identified hepatitis C. In those days, the early 1980s, scientists knew the virus existed—patients were getting sick because of blood transfusions—but it was labelled for what it wasn’t: “non-A” or “non-B” hepatitis.
“It ended up taking seven years—a lot of false leads, a lot of frustration,” remembers Houghton, now Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology at the University of Alberta.
When Houghton’s team did manage to discover the hepatitis C virus (HCV) in 1989, it was a watershed moment among virologists and immunologists—the first step toward eradicating an infectious disease that affects 170 million people worldwide. Spread largely through unsafe handling of blood and dirty needles, hep C in its chronic form can result in serious damage to the liver, including organ failure.