Physiology or Medicine Nobel Laureates Michael Houghton, Charles Rice, and Harvey Alter will formally receive a Nobel Prize on Thursday for their groundbreaking discoveries and research on the hepatitis C virus, but its research would not have been possible without the scientific contributions of Texas Biomed, said Texas Biomed President and CEO Larry Schlesinger. 

“All three Nobel Laureates could not have advanced their studies without Texas Biomed and the chimpanzees [formerly] at our institute,” Schlesinger said in a recently recorded TXBioBytes podcast.

The Nobel Laureates worked with several Texas Biomed scientists on hepatitis C studies, publishing numerous papers together over the years, the institute said in a statement. Alter conducted several of his studies at Texas Biomed, and all three laureates relied heavily on chimpanzees provided by and monitored at the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) at Texas Biomed.

Texas Biomed also played a part in testing cures for the hepatitis C virus. Due to research performed at Texas Biomed, effective treatments for hepatitis C have been found, tested, and confirmed. However, no vaccine against hepatitis C yet exists. The institute continues its research toward finding a hepatitis C vaccine today, said Ja’Nise Solitaire, media and communications specialist at Texas Biomed. 

How is Texas Biomed related to these laureates?

Robert Lanford led hepatitis research at Texas Biomed for several years before retiring earlier this year following a 40-year career.

Lanford established the hepatitis research program at Texas Biomed in the 1980s and served as director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC). 

Lanford’s work focused on developing treatments for hepatitis C and hepatitis B, which included pre-clinical tests on primates. Several of the treatments Lanford modeled in chimps and other primates progressed to human trials and have since become approved therapies.

An estimated 71 million people globally develop a hepatitis C virus infection and a significant number of those who are chronically infected develop cirrhosis or liver cancer which can be fatal, according to the World Health Organization. Individuals can become infected when blood or bodily fluids are exchanged; the virus was originally discovered in patients who’d received blood transfusions.

Who are these Nobel winners?

Hepatitis A and hepatitis B had been discovered and characterized by the 1960s, with tests coming out to screen for them in blood transfusions in the 1970s. Still, Alter and his colleagues found that a large number of hepatitis cases were being caused by an unknown virus, not by hepatitis A or B. He and his team titled the mysterious virus non-A, non-B hepatitis. 

Alter also found the disease could be transmitted to chimps, the only non-human primate also susceptible to the mystery virus, a discovery critical to later studies – some of which were performed at Texas Biomed.

Houghton is credited for officially discovering the hepatitis C virus genome – its genetic code – in 1989 and for finding a usable clone of the virus later.

For many years, Houghton had a large hepatitis C virus vaccine program at SNPRC that had some “very promising candidates,” however scientists are still working toward a licensed vaccine, Lanford said.

Following Houghton’s discovery, Rice was able to prove that the hepatitis C virus was potent enough to cause hepatitis in a host – helping explain the mysterious cases of non-A, non-B hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions.

For their achievements, the three men are being recognized by the Nobel committee as the scientists who discovered the hepatitis C virus. Their discoveries started a path toward eliminating hepatitis C, and with advancements in science, new Hepatitis C infections have declined 90 percent.

Texas Biomedical Research Institute was founded in 1941. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

How Texas Biomed played a part

While Houghton, Rice and Alter were doing their research from the 1970s through the early 2000s, Lanford also was studying non-A, non-B hepatitis in chimpanzees at Texas Biomed.

“The chimpanzees were absolutely essential for the advancement of viral infection,” Schlesinger said. “It was Dr. Rice who came onto the scene with hepatitis C and really proved that the infectious virus itself as a single agent could cause hepatitis in animals – again in chimpanzees. So all three Nobel laureates could not have advanced their studies without Texas Biomed and the chimpanzees at our institute.”

After the virus was officially discovered, named, and cloneable, scientists – including Lanford – turned to find a cure and/or vaccine against Hepatitis C. 

“[I] was the one who started the hepatitis C program with the chimpanzees [at Texas Biomed],” Lanford said. “We knew that [model] would be critical for drug testing, so our lab did everything we could to characterize the infection in those animals and the immunities.”

Between 1999 and 2012, Lanford said his lab had about 43 contracts working with about 27 outside companies to test their different treatments for hepatitis C, but the number of different treatments also created drug-resistant strains of the virus, Lanford said.

Today, two treatments tested in Lanford’s lab are FDA approved, and several others that can cure hepatitis C in 12 weeks with daily pills are nearing approval, Lanford said. Modern drugs can cure more than 95 percent of hepatitis C patients

The search for a vaccine and beyond

Chris Chen has continued Lanford’s vaccine research at Texas Biomed.

Chen has been leading immunity studies related to pre-testing hepatitis C vaccines and also has continued some of Lanford’s work on hepatitis B. 

Chimpanzees have been banned as test subjects since 2015 following pressure from animal rights organizations, which has forced scientists to look for new models of testing.

“[Scripps Research] are developing the vaccines, and then we do what you’d call immunogenicity studies – so we vaccinate the animals, and then we [look at the animals blood for antibodies] and see what the immune responses to those vaccinations are, if immune cells are being stimulated.”

These tests should tell scientists which other animals would be best for testing hepatitis treatments, Chen said.

Beyond that, Chen is focused on two major studies; one that is trying to develop a relative of hepatitis B that can be used to infect squirrel monkeys, and one that looks at liver cancer that can develop from hepatitis. 

“Liver cancer is important in this area, as it’s very common around South Texas,” said Chen, who also is extensively involved in studying liver cancer at Texas Biomed. “I encourage anybody who may be at high risk to go and get themselves screened for liver cancer or for hepatitis because less than 10 percent of people who are chronically infected are aware.”

Correction: The spelling of Dr. Chen’s name has been updated.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett reports on business and technology for the San Antonio Report.