Discovery of the hepatitis C virus


Michael Houghton, PhD, Epiphany Biosciences Inc., 1 California Street, Suite 2800, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
Tel: 415 765 7122
Fax: 415 765 7200


After nearly 6 years of intensive investigations between 1982 and 1988 in my laboratory at Chiron corporation, in which numerous molecular biological methods were used to investigate the viral aetiology of parenterally transmitted non-A, non-B viral hepatitis (NANBH), a single cDNA clone (5-1-1) was isolated that was shown to be derived from a new flavi-like virus, termed the hepatitis C virus (HCV). After screening hundreds of millions of bacterial cDNA clones derived from different liver and plasma samples obtained from experimentally infected chimpanzees, a single HCV clone was eventually isolated using a novel, blind immunoscreening method in which antibodies derived from a clinically diagnosed NANBH patient were used to identify a cDNA clone encoding an immunodominant epitope within HCV nonstructural protein 4. Its viral origin was demonstrated by its specific hybridization to a large single-stranded RNA molecule of ∼10 000 nucleotides found only in NANBH-infected samples that shared distant sequence identity with flaviviruses. Further, HCV clone 5-1-1 was shown to be extrachromosomal and to encode an antigen eliciting antibody seroconversion only in NANBH-infected chimpanzees and humans. Subsequent work demonstrated that HCV was the principal cause of parenterally transmitted NANBH around the world, with an estimated 170 million global carriers and that blood screening tests detecting circulating HCV antibodies and viral RNA could effectively eradicate the transmission of transfusion-associated NANBH. Key viral-encoded enzymes essential to its life cycle are now the targets of vigorous, ongoing drug development activities, and the feasibility of successful vaccination strategies has been demonstrated using the valuable chimpanzee model, without which any progress on HCV would not have been possible. My colleagues and coworkers who made essential contributions to the discovery of HCV were George Kuo, who had his own laboratory at Chiron and who provided intellectual and practical input, Dan Bradley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who provided a large supply of well-characterized chimpanzee samples and knowledge of the NANBH field, and Qui-Lim Choo, in my own laboratory, who provided many years of outstandingly dedicated and precise molecular biology expertise.