Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton jointly won the Nobel Prize for medicine yesterday for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus, a major source of liver disease that affects millions worldwide.

Announcing the prize in Stockholm, the Nobel Committee noted that the trio’s work identified a major source of blood-borne hepatitis that couldn’t be explained by the previously discovered hepatitis A and B viruses. Their work, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, has helped saved millions of lives, 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.”

WHO estimates there are over 70 million cases of hepatitis C worldwide and 400,000 deaths from it each year. The disease is chronic and a major cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis requiring liver transplants.

John McLauchlan, a professor of viral hepatitis at the University of Glasgow, called the theree laureates “pioneers” and said their discovery made the global elimination of the disease possible. In 2016, the World Health Organization issued a strategy to wipe out the disease by 2030.

The medicine prize carried particular significance this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted the importance that medical research has for societies and economies around the world.

“That would mark the first time we might possibly control a viral infection using only drugs,” McLauchlan said.

“The only issue is getting drugs to people and places where they desperately need them,” he said, adding that the disease primarily strikes stigmatized populations like drug users and the poor.

Alter, who was born in 1935 in New York, carried out his prize-winning studies at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where he remains active, the committee said. Rice, born in 1952 in Sacramento, California, worked on hepatitis at Washington University in St. Louis and now works at Rockefeller University in New York. Houghton, born in Britain in 1950, studied at the Chiron Corporation in California before moving to the University of Alberta in Canada.

The medicine prize carried particular significance this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted the importance that medical research has for societies and economies around the world.

Will Irving, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, said that identifying hepatitis C had been the “holy grail” in medicine.

“After hepatitis A and B were discovered in the 1970s, it was clear there was still at least one other virus or more that were causing liver damage,” he said.

“We knew there was a virus in the blood supply, because when people had blood transfusions they would get liver damage,” Irving said. “It was recognized as a risk but there was nothing we could do. We didn’t know what the virus was and we couldn’t test for it.”

Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors drew a parallel between this year’s prize and the current rush by millions of scientists around the world to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“The first thing you need to do is to identify the causing virus,” he told reporters. “And once that has been done, that is, in itself, the starting point for development of drugs to treat the disease and also to develop vaccines against the disorder.”

Unlike hepatitis A, which is transmitted via food or water and causes an acute infection that can last a few weeks, hepatitis B and C are transmitted through blood.

The hepatitis C virus belongs to a group known as flaviviruses that also includes West Nile virus, dengue virus and yellow fever virus.

Thomas Perlmann, the Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee, managed yesterday to reach two of the winners, Alter and Rice.

The Nobel Committee often recognises basic science that has laid the foundations for practical applications in common use today.

The prestigious Nobel award comes with a gold medal and prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1,118,000), courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.

Yesterday’s medicine award is the first of six prizes this year being announced through Oct. 12. The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

LEAVE A REPLY

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.