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Hepatitis B Foundation announces recipient of 2021 Baruch S. Blumberg Prize

Dr. Wenhui Li of China's National Institute of Biological Sciences to be
honored for contributing to the science of hepatitis B 

Doylestown, Pa., Nov. 12, 2020 -- The Hepatitis B Foundation is announcing today that Wenhui Li, Ph.D., has been chosen as the recipient of its 2021 Baruch S. Blumberg Prize for outstanding contributions to advance the science and medicine of hepatitis B.

An investigator at China’s National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS), Dr. Li is being recognized for his discovery of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) receptor on hepatocytes, a breakthrough that will have a major influence on the future of therapeutics for people living with chronic hepatitis B infections.

Li Wenhui3 Wenhui Li, Ph.D.

The Baruch S. Blumberg Prize is the Hepatitis B Foundation’s highest honor, given to publicly recognize the outstanding contributions made by an individual to significantly advance the science and medicine of hepatitis B. Considered to be the “Nobel Prize” for hepatitis B research, the award is named for Baruch S. Blumberg, M.D., D.Phil., who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1976 for discovering the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Dr. Blumberg, who was a co-founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation, died in 2011. The Foundation’s research arm, the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, is named in his honor.

“The community owes a tremendous debt to Dr. Li for his pioneering work in the discovery of the receptor for hepatitis B,” said Timothy S. Block, Ph.D., president and co-founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation and its Baruch S. Blumberg Institute. “Dr. Li’s work has been among the most important in the field.”

Two Nobel Prize winners with ties to the Hepatitis B Foundation also praised Dr. Li’s selection. Dr. Harvey Alter, who is among the Foundation’s Scientific and Medical Advisors and a Blumberg Institute distinguished faculty member (adjunct), and Dr. Charles Rice, a Blumberg Institute advisor, who together were chosen for the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with collaborator Dr. Michael Houghton, spoke highly of Dr. Li’s research.

“As the HBV story continues to unfold, Dr. Li has added a new important piece,” Dr. Alter said. “He has identified the receptor for HBV entry into liver cells providing the rationale for receptor-blocking therapeutics. I am very receptive to Dr. Li’s great discovery.”

Dr. Rice commented: "This is a most fitting recognition for a truly transformative discovery. The search for the elusive HBV receptor spanned decades, tackled by some of the best labs in the world, and met with dismal failure. Wenhui and his team’s success has provided a remarkable new tool for HBV virology and re-energized the field to finally find a functional cure for chronic hepatitis B. Bravo!"  

Nathaniel Brown, M.D., a retired pharmaceutical executive and global leader in the field of antiviral drug R&D focused on HBV and HCV, said: “Wenhui Li is a great choice. As Tim Block has pointed out, the HBV receptor was elusive for many years, and understanding HBV’s entry mechanism is helping to identify potential new therapeutics as well as providing a more precise understanding of HBV’s pathophysiology.” 

Dr. Li said: “I feel extremely honored to be selected as the recipient of 2021 Baruch S. Blumberg Prize and the honor also goes to my colleagues working with me. I am very pleased that the work on receptor helps our understanding of HBV infection and with developing new therapies.”

The Blumberg Prize recipient is chosen by the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Scientific and Medical Advisors. Also voting on the award are past recipients of the Blumberg Prize, including Dr. Harvey Alter, who is among the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology; Dr. Anna Lok, assistant dean for clinical research, University of Michigan Medical School; and Dr. John Taylor, professor emeritus, Fox Chase Cancer Center.

After earning a Ph.D. in 2001 from the Peking Union Medical College and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Dr. Li worked as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an instructor at Harvard Medical School, Boston. In 2007, he joined NIBS Beijing, where he has focused on viral infection of hepatitis B and hepatitis D. Dr. Li’s research led to the discovery that a multiple transmembrane bile acids transporter (NTCP, sodium taurocholate co-transporting polypeptide), predominantly expressed in liver, is a functional receptor for HBV and HDV. Dr. Li is now an investigator at NIBS and a professor at the Tsinghua Institute of Multidisciplinary Biomedical Research.

The Hepatitis B Foundation is announcing Dr. Li’s selection for the Blumberg Prize during a virtual reception this evening (Nov. 12) for participants in The Liver Meeting, which is the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases that will be an online-only event this year. The Blumberg Prize is presented annually at the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Crystal Ball Gala, which typically attracts more than 200 leaders from academia, government, business and the regional community. This year’s Gala is scheduled for April 30. 

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About the Hepatitis B Foundation: The nation’s leading nonprofit organization solely dedicated to finding a cure for hepatitis B and improving the quality of life for those affected worldwide through research, education and patient advocacy, the Hepatitis B Foundation is based in Doylestown, Pa. To learn more, go to www.hepb.org, read our blog at hepb.org/blog, follow us on Twitter @HepBFoundation, find us on Facebook at facebook.com/hepbfoundation or call 215-489-4900. To donate, contact Jean Holmes at 215-489-4900 or jean.holmes@hepb.org.