American researchers Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British scientist Michael Houghton were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough which “made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives,” the Nobel Assembly said on Monday.
- In its press release, the Nobel Assembly praised the scientists’ for their “seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus, Hepatitis C” noting that prior to this, most blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained.
- The blood-borne disease may cause liver inflammation and cancer and the World Health Organisation estimates that there are 70 million cases of hepatitis worldwide, leading to 400,000 deaths each year.
- In 1976, American scientist Baruch Blumberg won the Nobel prize for discovering Hepatitis B, the first blood-borne hepatitis.
- The Nobel in medicine is the first of six prizes that are set to be announced this month, marking exceptional achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
The winners of the 2020 Nobel prizes will receive a gold medal and prize money of 10 million Swedish Kronor ($1.12 million). While working at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Alter was the first to discover that patients receiving blood transfusions were getting infected by a new form of chronic viral hepatitis that was distinct from Hepatitis A and B. Houghton, working for pharmaceutical firm Chiron, then helped genetically sequence the then-unknown pathogen and discovered it was a novel RNA virus belonging to the Flavivirus family and named it Hepatitis C. Rice, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, through his work on the virus’ genome, found proof that the Hepatitis C virus alone could cause unexplained cases of transfusion-mediated hepatitis.