Research: Science, Industry and Hepatitis C

By J. Donald Capra | THE JOURNAL RECORD, September 8, 1999 | Go to article overview

Research: Science, Industry and Hepatitis C


J. Donald Capra, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Biomedical scientists and industry are racing to develop strategies and products to diagnose, prevent and treat hepatitis C. The quest is a good example of the impact of modern biomedical research on disease and how this research information can be useful in industry to generate products and profits.

Hepatitis C may become a more deadly disease than AIDS, yet there is comparably little interest in this disease. An estimated 170 million people are infected with hepatitis worldwide (more than four times as many with the AIDS virus), and most experts predict that within five years there will be more deaths from hepatitis C liver disease and cancer than AIDS deaths in the United States.

Yet, the National Institute for Health effort for hepatitis C research -- about $30 million -- is miniscule compared to the AIDS effort: more than $1.8 billion. There is a similar disparity in the pharmaceutical industry, where the hepatitis C effort is limited to only a handful of companies (Chiron is the major player).

The medical term "hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. At one time, physicians called all liver infections "hepatitis," but with the discovery of hepatitis A, then hepatitis B, there was a search for other viral causes of "hepatitis." Hepatitis C is turning out to be a very deadly member of this group of viruses.

In 1988, Chiron, along with some NIH scientists, reported the new virus as the cause of the disease, and a blood test was developed. Even today, the test to detect hepatitis C is less than optimal because of the high number of false positives. Better tests are needed and are currently being developed. Nonetheless, the development of a screening test in 1990 has virtually eliminated the spread of hepatitis C in industrialized countries through transfusion.

Today, sharing contaminated needles is by far the most common route of infection, although other means of transmission are common: Mother to fetus, sexual transmission, etc.

Chiron of Emeryville, Calif., was one of the first biotechnology companies to invest heavily in hepatitis C. In addition to being involved in the discovery of the virus, they developed the first blood test. They have had to vigorously protect their patents as many other companies have developed blood tests, and Chiron has filed suit in Europe, Australia, and the United States against at least four companies that have marketed competing blood tests. …

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