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Prof. Ellie Barnes comments on the 2020 Nobel Prize for Medicine

Prof Ellie Barnes comments on the recent Nobel Prize in Medicine, awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, a major global health problem and a cause of cancer

In 1989, Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice used what at the time were state-of-the-art technologies available to identify the virus that causes Hepatitis C infection. This ground-breaking discovery allowed for the development of blood tests to diagnose the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) and saved millions of lives over the last 40 years.

Testing for HCV has enabled the discovery of chronic infections that results from the Hepatitis C virus. Currently 71 million people are living with HCV, as there is no vaccine to prevent infection. HCV remains a silent disease that is often only diagnosed until symptoms of late-stage liver disease develop. In many cases, it goes undetected until severe complications occur, the most serious of which is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). By this point, existing treatments are often less effective at clearing the infection.

Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type of primary liver cancer, which is common in those who have had liver scarring due to Hepatitis B and C infections. 400,000 people globally die each year from HCV, with hepatocellular carcinoma continually on the rise. As a result, viral hepatitis is still one of the most serious global pandemics at large. Due to the lack of an effective HCV vaccine and early detection methods for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma, it is crucial to develop techniques that can aid its early detection and thereby increase the survival rate of cancer patients.

Prof Ellie Barnes at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, leads the DeLIVER study for the early detection of hepatocellular carcinoma that builds on the seminal work as recognised with this year’s Nobel Prize. On the topic of this year’s Nobel Prize winners, she says:

“Now, we need to repeat what those Nobel Prize winners did in 1989 for liver cancer. Like them, we can use today’s new advances in imaging and molecular technology to identify hepatocellular carcinoma at an earlier stage when it is still curable.

“The techniques to do this have advanced remarkably over the last 40 years and it should be possible, with carefully designed patient cohorts and inter-disciplinary effective co-working. By building on the work of Alter, Houghton and Rice, we can do it.”

The risk of liver cancer is increased by viral hepatitis infections, alcohol and obesity, causing the immune system to attack the liver leading to scarring and liver cirrhosis. Monitoring of people with these conditions can reduce mortality but current diagnostic tests for hepatocellular carcinoma fail to detect cancer in many cases.

The DeLIVER team is building on the work of Nobel Prize winners through the use of state-of-the-art multiparametric imaging, viral genetics, and liquid biopsy technologies (such as TAPS) to identify the early indicators of liver cancer by studying people at risk, such as those with Hepatitis C, over several years.

About DeLIVER

DeLIVER is a CRUK-funded programme led by Professor Ellie Barnes that aims to better understand the pre-cancerous changes in the liver and use this knowledge to inform new technologies for early HCC detection. The study will receive patient input from the British Liver Trust and the Hepatitis C Trust.

You can read more about it on the OxCODE website here.