Michael Houghton found the missing piece of a decade-old puzzle, a molecular needle in a haystack, and saved millions of lives. When hepatitis A virus was discovered it explained some cases of hepatitis - the deadly liver inflammation that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis B virus’ discovery followed, explaining more cases, but many more, particularly in recipients of blood transfusions, remained unaccounted-for. Deducing that these patients must harbour a third virus, Houghton and his team painstakingly sequenced fragments of DNA from an infected chimpanzee, and found one unwelcome strand amongst the chimpanzee genetic material. This snippet matched molecules from a human patient fighting off the sickness, confirming it was the missing cause: hepatitis C virus (pictured in infected liver cells). The discovery won a share of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and allowed the development of new detection tools and treatments that have raised hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus altogether.
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