Hepatitis C and the folly of prizes

The scientific world was set slightly aflutter when Michael Houghton turned down the prestigious Gairdner Award for the the discovery of Hepatitis C. Harvey Alter and Daniel Bradley were the two other recipients. Houghton, who had previously received the Lasker Award with Alter, felt he could not accept one more award because two colleagues Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo did not receive either of these awards, even though their contributions were equally important.

Hepatitis, which literally means inflammation of the liver, was characterized by Hippocrates and known to be infectious since the 8th century. The disease had been postulated to be viral at the beginning of the 20th century and by the 1960’s two viruses termed Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B had been established. However, there still seemed to be another unidentified infectious agent which was termed Non-A Non-B Hepatitis NANBH.

Michael Hougton, George Kuo and Qui-Lim Choo were all working at the Chiron corporation in the early 1980’s.   Houghton started a project to discover the cause of NANBH in 1982 with Choo joining a short time later. They made significant process in generating mouse monoclonal antibodies with some specificity to NANBH infected materials from chimpanzee samples received from Daniel Bradley at the CDC. They used the antibodies to screen cDNA libraries from infected materials but they had not isolated an agent. George Kuo had his own lab at Chiron working on other projects but would interact with Houghton and Choo. Kuo suggested that they try blind cDNA immunoscreening on serum derived from actual NANBH patients. This approach was felt to be too risky but Kuo made a quantitative assessment that showed it was viable. After two years of intensive and heroic screening by the three of them, they identified one clone that was clearly derived from the NANBH genome and not from human or chimp DNA. This was definitive proof that NANBH was a virus, which is now called Hepatitis C. Kuo then developed a prototype of a clinical Hepatitis C antibody detection kit and used it to screen a panel of NANBH blood provided by Harvey Alter of the NIH. Kuo’s test was a resounding success and the blood test that came out of that work has probably saved 300 million or more people from Hepititis C infection.

The question then is who deserves the prizes. Is it Bradley and Alter, who did careful and diligent work obtaining samples or is it Houghton, Choo, and Kuo, who did the heroic experiments that isolated the virus? For completely unknown reasons, the Lasker was awarded to just Houghton and Alter, which primed the pump for more prizes to these two. Now that the Lasker and Gairdner prizes have been cleared, that leaves just the Nobel Prize. The scientific community could get it right this time and award it to Kuo, Choo, and Houghton.


Addendum added 2013-5-2:  I should add that many labs from around the world were also trying to isolate the infective agent of NANBH and all failed to identify the correct samples from Alter’s panel.  It is not clear how long it would have been and how many more people would have been infected if Kuo, Choo, and Houghton had not succeeded when they did.


5 thoughts on “Hepatitis C and the folly of prizes

  1. If, like me, you are devoutly religious (in my case, devoutly agnostic—i’m thinking of setting up a DC (‘damage control’ or in dialect, divided and conquered) group for my faith (not the corrupt humanists either) —a black jewish aryan nation of salafist islamic LGBT agnostics so we can get tax free property and marital status)) then Noble prizes should not be an issue. Life itself is a prize but like the Noble (and peer review) process it is imperfect—for example, it doesn’t come with a guaranteed income, trust fund, much less the kind of natural self-esteem associated with the Noble prize, Ivy degree, high IQ (a la S Hsu now of MSU).

    So beyond having umblical cord cut, diapers changed, and feeding, we should all get a Noble at birth. (I guess to get this bill through congress a deal could be cut so that only those whose parents are US (or world) citizens would get full citizenship of this kind—others would have to get in the back of the line until every last chimp, protozoa, fish, etc. has been certified as a US citizen and Nlble prize winner).

    Then, to deal with issues like whether Perelman of the USSR (poincare conjecture), freeman dyson, or the authors mentioned above get their share of the Noble (i.e. original evil) cash that goes with the birther certificate, that certifies being among those with the distinctyion of being part of the american exceptionalism dream, one would reverse the process. Using an algorithm from economics due to John Ledyard (calthech) rather than awarding people for their ‘work’ (eg contribution to science) based on a flawed constitutional procedure, you follow the money. (This approach is of course hated by the ‘heterodox economists’ who think sinners sin because of its hedonic utility, but endorsed by the behavioral economists—who by the Walras/Sonnenchein/debreu/Mantel theorem are actually the same as non-sinners, apart from labeling (eg fermion-boson equivalence (paul werbos, or soliton theory) or cultural history). You see how people spend their noble prize over time. Those who overspend lose their prize. No peer review is required, because cas (bitcoins, etc.) is anonymous and universally (objectively) understood. A perfect communist society—which is the same as the perfect information walrasian/kenneth arrow general equilibrium of economics (all markets clear because everyone has perfect information about the price of a bitcoin) results. It may turn out to be the same as the current one if the universe is a whole is at equilibrium, and we’re all equal a priori members of a microcanonical ensemble.

    In short, people would have to buy their job with their guaranteed universal NSF grant, and there would be no price discimination. If all those authors equally contributed, they all end up with their ‘eyes still on the prize’, while everyone else would be broke.


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