Name: Mario Rizzetto
Institution: University of Torino
Could you tell me a little bit about your research and what it entails?
In the early years of my career, I was interested in autoimmune liver disorders. I described the Liver Kidney Microsomal (LKM) autoantibody which is now recognized as the serum maker of autoimmune hepatitis type 2. In the 1970s, I moved to viral hepatitis, first hepatitis B, then hepatitis B and C. With my co-workers in Torino, we described the virologic-clinical impact of the HBeAg-negative variety of chronic hepatitis B, and performed many clinical studies throughout the evolving therapeutic scenario of these diseases, going from no therapy in the 1970s to treatments so efficacious at present that they control and cure 90% of hepatitis B and of hepatitis C. In the mid-1970s we discovered a new antigen in HBsAg-positive patients, which subsequent experimental and virologic studies, the latter performed mostly in the US, identified as the marker of a new hepatitis virus, the Hepatitis D (delta) virus. Throughout the last 30 years, many studies by the team in Torino were of course dedicated to establish the medical features of this infection.
How did you come to be interested in viral hepatitis?
I was interested in hepatology since my university years, presumably because there were so many patients and nothing could be done. I had the privilege to have a stay in 1972-73 in London at the Immunology Unit of Middlesex Hospital. At the time, autoimmune hepatitis was the only form of chronic liver disease with putative etiology; working on autoantibodies, I learnt and became competent on tissutal immunochemistry.
Despite my enthusiasm for immunology, on my return to Italy, I faced the fact that in my country the prevalence of autoimmune liver disease was low. The hepatitis B virus had just come on stage and it was widespread in Italy. I turned to viral hepatitis, bolstered by the technology learnt in London that was a background also to virology.
What do you see as the biggest accomplishment in your field in the past few years?
Undoubtedly the biggest accomplishment is the advent of efficacious and safe therapies against the hepatitis C virus (HCV): the whole scenario of hepatology has changed dramatically, from the frustration of a few years ago to the current plausible hypothesis of eradication of the HCV in the near future.
What do you see as the main challenges for research in your field in the coming years?
I see in clinical hepatology a major change of the mission of the hepatologist, from the current perception of a reference figure caring for outpatients, to a staff-member in major hospital referral centers, representing the referent for liver diseases and the competent person within the medical team to address the intensive care needs of patients with advanced liver disease.
What personal career achievement are you most proud of? Why
In my role of putative scientist, I am of course proud of the discovery of the hepatitis D virus which led to the identification of a pathogen and a disease of medical impact worldwide.
In personal terms, I am proud that I, with my collaborators In Torino and the many Italian friends dedicated to the study of liver diseases in Italy, succeeded in raising the standard of Italian hepatology to an international level.