This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology has been awarded to three scientists who discovered the hepatitis C virus.
The Nobel Prize in medicine for 2020 has been awarded to Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. Announcing the prize in Stockholm on Monday, the Nobel Committee noted that the trio’s work helped explain a major source of blood-borne hepatitis that couldn’t be explained by the hepatitis A and B viruses.
Their work makes possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives, the committee said.
“This year’s Nobel Prize is awarded to three scientists who have made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world,” the committee said in a statement.
“The 2020 Nobel Prize laureates Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus, hepatitis C,” it said.
“Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health,” the committee said.
“Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C,” it added. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population.”
The World Health Organization estimates there are over 70 million cases of hepatitis worldwide and 400,000 deaths each year. The disease is chronic and a major cause of liver inflammation and cancer.
The prestigious Nobel award comes with a gold medal and prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (over USD 1,118,000), courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.
The Nobel Committee often recognises basic science that has laid the foundations for practical applications in common use today.
The award is the first of six prizes being announced through October 12. The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
Harvey J Alter
Harvey James Alter, 85, is an American medical researcher, virologist, and physician. Alter is the chief of the infectious disease section and the associate director for research of the Department of Transfusion Medicine at the Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States. Harvey J Alter’s research demonstrated that most post-transfusion hepatitis cases were not due to hepatitis A and hepatitis B viruses. The methodical studies of transfusion-associated hepatitis by 2020 Medicine Laureate Harvey J Alter demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis. This work eventually led to the discovery of the hepatitis C virus in 1988.
Michael Houghton is a British virologist. According to the Nobel Committee, the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Michael Houghton used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the new virus that was named the hepatitis C virus.
Interestingly, Houghton is not only credited for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, but for discovering the hepatitis D genome. The discovery of hepatitis C led to the rapid development of diagnostic reagents to detect HCV in blood supplies which have reduced the risk of acquiring HCV through blood transfusion from one in three to about one in two million. It is estimated that antibody testing has prevented at least 40,000 new infections per year in the US alone and many more worldwide. Houghton is currently Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology and Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta where he is also Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.
Charles M Rice
A professor of virology at Rockefeller University, Nobel Laureate Charles M Rice provided the final evidence showing that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.