Published October 7, 2020
Monday’s announcement that the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology had been awarded to the team responsible for the discovery of hepatitis C virus clearly has meaning for the estimated 70 million people who have contracted HCV worldwide. But it also has lessons for a world focused on finding a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19.
That’s the perspective of UB faculty member Andrew H. Talal, who worked closely with and was mentored by Charles M. Rice, a recipient of the Nobel Prize announced Monday, along with Harvey J. Alter and Michael Houghton.
Talal, professor in the Department of Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, spent the early years of his career working with Rice, who at the time was co-director of the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C at Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medical College. Talal says Rice’s work provided guidance and inspiration for him as a researcher starting out in the field.
He says the Nobel Prize affirmed Rice’s critical contribution.
“Hepatitis C virus went from being a virus that you couldn’t even grow in the lab to a virus that can be cured in almost everybody who gets treated,” Talal explains. “And that was Rice’s contribution. He developed the culture system for the virus to grow so that we could study it and ultimately develop the potent antivirals that now can cure just about everybody who takes them.”
The discoveries that Rice, Houghton and Alter made have now translated into the ability to cure millions of people,” he says.
And that, he says, is also a model for dealing with COVID-19. “The trajectory of hepatitis C shows us where we are going with COVID-19, from identifying the organism to testing for it and what remains to be done: finding effective treatments and a vaccine.
“The timeline with COVID-19 has really been compressed,” Talal adds. “What took 25 to 30 years with hepatitis C virus has taken just months, or in some cases weeks with COVID-19.”
He notes that work continues on finding a vaccine for hepatitis C virus, which is difficult because the virus mutates so rapidly.
Talal is principal investigator on a $7.5 million Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) award to study how innovations, such as telemedicine and partnering with opioid treatment programs, can effectively address HCV in people with substance use disorders.
He adds that HCV is a casualty of the national opioid epidemic: A majority of those who have it are substance users who share needles, many of whom are not aware that they are infected.
A physician with UBMD Internal Medicine, Talal conducts numerous clinical trials on new treatments for liver disease, including HCV. He s a member of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s task force that advises the state on its HCV Elimination Plan, as well as chair of the New York State HCV Telemedicine workgroup.
A portion of his research is supported by the Troup Fund of the Kaleida Health Foundation.