Nobel Prize: Three scientists win for 'discovering Hepatitis C virus'
The 2020 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to three scientists for the "discovery of the Hepatitis C virus." The three scientists—Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice—"made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis," the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet said in a press release. Here are more details.
Trio 'made seminal discoveries' leading to discovery of virus
The trio "made seminal discoveries" that led to the identification of the Hepatitis C virus, the statement added. It noted that although the discoveries of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had paved the way, a majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases had remained unexplained. The discovery of the Hepatitis C virus "made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives."
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by a virus that spreads through an infected person's blood or body fluids. The disease can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks (acute hepatitis) to a lifelong illness (chronic hepatitis). It is a major cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Globally, an estimated 71 million people have chronic Hepatitis C infections.
Certain blood-transmitted hepatitis cases previously remained unexplained
In the 1940s, two main types of hepatitis had been identified—Hepatitis A (caused by polluted water/food), and other cases transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. The blood-transmitted cases were associated with chronic hepatitis. Although blood tests for the newly-discovered Hepatitis B virus reduced the number of blood transfusion-related cases, Alter's early research showed a large number of infections remained unexplained.
Researcher who discovered Hepatitis B virus had won 1976 Nobel
In the 1960s, Baruch Blumberg had established that one form of blood-borne hepatitis was caused by a virus that became known as Hepatitis B virus. For this discovery, Blumberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976.
Alter's work led to recognition of 'non-A, non-B' hepatitis
Alter and his colleagues had shown that blood from these hepatitis patients could transmit the disease to chimpanzees, the only susceptible host besides humans. Later research showed the infectious agent had viral characteristics, which led to the recognition of a mysterious illness: "non-A, non-B" hepatitis. Michael Houghton—working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron—then proceeded to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus.
Charles Rice's work solved piece of puzzle
Houghton's work showed the virus belonged to the Flavivirus family and it was named Hepatitis C virus. Thereafter, Washington University researcher Charles M. Rice, along with others, showed that the Hepatitis C virus alone could cause the unexplained cases of transfusion-mediated hepatitis. He had injected a genetically-engineered RNA variant of the Hepatitis C virus into the livers of chimpanzees to demonstrate this.
'For the first time ever, the disease can be cured'
The Nobel Assembly 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." 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."