Harvey James Alter was born in New York City on September 12, 1935. He attended the University of Rochester and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1956. In 1960, Alter earned his medical degree at the University of Rochester Medical School, and trained in internal medicine at Strong Memorial Hospital and at the University Hospitals of Seattle. In 1961, he came to the National Institutes of Health as a clinical associate. Alter did a year of residency at University of Washington Hospital System in Seattle from July 1964 to June 1965 and the following year worked as a hematology fellow at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He returned to NIH in 1969 to join the Clinical Center’s Department of Transfusion Medicine as a senior investigator, becoming Chief of the Clinical Studies and Associate Director of Research in the Department of Transfusion Medicine at the NIH Clinical Center.
Alter’s academic appointments include: clinical associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital; Adjunct Professor at Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, TX; clinical professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital; and a faculty position at Clinical Research Training Program at the NIH.
Alter co-discovered the Australia antigen, a key to detecting hepatitis B virus. Later, he spearheaded a project at the Clinical Center that created a storehouse of blood samples used to uncover the causes and reduce the risk of transfusion-associated hepatitis. He was principal investigator on studies that identified non-A, non-B hepatitis, now called hepatitis C. His work was instrumental in providing the scientific basis for instituting blood donor screening programs that have decreased the incidence of transfusion-transmitted hepatitis to near zero. Alter continues to study the infectious risks of blood transfusion, but now focuses on agents other than hepatitis viruses. In addition, he continues to study the natural history and outcomes of hepatitis C virus infection.
Honors and Awards
Among his many honors and awards, Alter was awarded the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research in 2000 for his work leading to the discovery of the virus that causes hepatitis C. Alter and his co-awardee Michael Houghton were recognized for the development of blood screening methods that essentially eliminated the risk of transfusion-associated hepatitis in the U.S.
In 2002, he became the first Clinical Center scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences and he was also elected to the Institute of Medicine. Only a small number of scientists are chosen for both scientific societies.
In 2013 he received the Canada Gairdner International Award, given to a scientist whose advances have had, or will potentially have, a significant impact on health outcomes in the developing world.
In 2015, Alter received the 2015 Fries Prize for Improving Health. “He was honored for his scientific research and leadership in translating science into practice which has prevented millions of new infections and cases of severe disease and death from hepatitis C and B virus and HIV.”
Alter was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice “for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus,” a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world. Their discovery led to the development of highly sensitive blood tests, which the Nobel Committee noted, “have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health.”
Alter is married to Barbara Bailey and the couple has two children.
Sources: “Harvey J. Alter,” Wikipedia;
“Harvey J. Alter, M.D., NIH;
“Alter receives the Fires Prize for improving health,” Clinical Center, (October 2015);
“The 2020 Medicine Laureates,” , (October 5, 2020).
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