Published November 9, 2020
Andrew H. Talal, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, was justifiably proud when the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was made in early October.
Talal worked closely with and was mentored by Charles M. Rice, who along with Harvey J. Alter and Michael Houghton, earned the award for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). An estimated 70 million people have contracted HCV worldwide.
Talal 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 The Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medicine. Talal said Rice’s work provided guidance and inspiration for him as a researcher starting out in the field and that 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 says. “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,” Talal adds.
Their work with HCV also has lessons for a world focused on finding a vaccine or a cure for 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,” Talal says.
“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.”
Talal notes that work continues on finding a vaccine for the 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 award — $7 million in the original 2016 grant and a supplement of $500,000 awarded earlier this year — to study how innovations, such as telemedicine and partnering with opioid treatment programs, can effectively address HCV in people with substance use disorders.
He added that HCV is a casualty of the national opioid epidemic: A majority of those infected with HCV are substance users who share needles, many of whom are not even aware that they are infected.
Talal, a physician with UBMD Internal Medicine, conducts numerous clinical trials on new treatments for liver disease, including HCV. He is also a member of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s task force that advises New York State on its HCV Elimination Plan, as well as chair of the New York State HCV Telemedicine workgroup. A portion of his research is also supported by the Troup Fund of the Kaleida Health Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.