Sep 28, 2021 - World

Heritage imprint: A milestone from Chilean R&D

Picture of a screen that says Viral Hepatitis
A screen in Stockholm, Sweden, displays the work field of the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Hepatitis B and C found a foe in biotech and medical researchers spearheaded or funded by a Chilean biochemist.

Why it matters: The work and research fostered by Pablo D. Valenzuela led to a groundbreaking vaccine-making technique and the treatment of those with hepatitis B or C, which each affect more than 1.5 million people worldwide every year, according the World Health Organization.

Details: Valenzuela, along with William Rutter and Edward Penhoet, founded the biotech firm Chiron in 1981.

  • With Valenzuela as head of research and development, scientists at Chiron in 1989 named the hepatitis C virus, which had puzzled doctors and researchers for years.
  • That research was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last year.

In 1986, Chiron accomplished what’s been called a “milestone” and “a medical biotechnology landmark": the creation of the first approved recombinant vaccine.

  • The mechanism, patented by Valenzuela for hepatitis B, “clones” a virus so the immune response can be triggered with particles that don’t have the actual disease agent.
  • Until then, vaccines had mostly been developed with dead viruses, which made them difficult to produce since they sometimes required plasma from patients that was hard to get.
  • In several parts of the world, including the U.S., people can now be safely and effectively vaccinated against hepatitis B from infancy.

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