The breakthrough understanding of hepatitis came in 1963 when Dr Baruch Blumberg discovered an antigen that detected the presence of hepatitis B (HBV) in blood samples.
At the time, Dr Blumberg was actually researching the genetics of disease susceptibility. He did not set out to discover hepatitis, but his work led to a major breakthrough and increased understanding of the disease.
In the 1950s, Dr Blumberg started to explore whether inherited traits could make different groups of people more or less susceptible to the same disease. He and his team travelled around the world visiting native populations in remote locations to collect blood samples for analysis. The intention was to look for genetic differences to see whether these differences were associated with a particular disease.
Specifically, they studied hemophiliac patients who had received multiple blood transfusions and therefore would be exposed to blood they had received from donors. The consequence of receiving other people's blood is that the immune system produces 'antibodies' against the foreign blood serum proteins, or 'antigens' from the donors.
Dr Blumberg and his team identified an unusual antigen from a blood sample of an Australian Aborigine, which they called the Australia antigen. After further research, this turned out to be the antigen that caused hepatitis B, which was officially recognised in 1967.
Just two years later in 1969, Dr Blumberg and his colleague, Dr Iriving Millman, invented the hepatitis B vaccine. The US Food and Drug Administration named it the first 'anti-cancer' vaccine because the prevention of chronic hepatitis infections results in the prevention
of primary liver cancer due to HBV (approximately 80% of people with chronic hepatitis B will develop liver cancer). More than 500,000 people die each year from liver cancer.
The hepatitis B vaccine has been administered to millions of people, particularly in Asia and Africa, thus saving many, many lives.
In the early 1970s, the cause of infectious hepatitis was found and named the Hepatitis A virus (HAV). In 1989 hepatitis C virus (HCV) was isolated. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but in 80% of cases, carriers who complete a treatment course can be cured.
In 1990 hepatitis E virus (HEV) and in 1995, Hepatitis G virus (HGV), were identified.
In 1976, Dr Baruch Blumberg was awarded the Noble Prize for Medicine in recognition of his discovery of the hepatitis B virus. He died on 5 April 2011at the age of 85 years.