Three scientists on Monday won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the hepatitis C virus, which led to the development of a test to prevent the spread of the virus and drugs that have saved millions of lives. said the Nobel Assembly.
Harvey Alter of the National Institutes of Health; Michael Houghton, who is now at the University of Alberta in Canada; and Charles Rice, who is now at Rockefeller University in New York, will share the prize of SEK 1
Hepatitis C causes severe liver disease, which can be fatal. The virus is transmitted through contaminated water and body fluids, including blood. The discovery led to a test for the virus, which is now widely used to protect people from infection through blood transfusions. The discovery also led to antiviral drugs to treat the infection.
“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising the hope of eradicating the hepatitis C virus from the world population,” the Nobel Committee said in a statement.
As is customary, the announcement was made at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, Literature and Peace will be awarded this week and the Economics Prize will be awarded next Monday.
Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to 219 scientists, including 12 women. The youngest winner was 32; the oldest 87.
The World Health Organization estimates that 71 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis C, which can lead to liver cancer and cirrhosis. There are about 400,000 deaths each year from the disease, according to the WHO.
In the United States, there are more than 50,000 cases of hepatitis C each year, a rate that continues to increase as the opioid epidemic persists, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although hepatitis C drugs are effective, their high cost – tens of thousands of dollars per course of treatment – has limited their use in both the United States and developing countries. The price has fallen with the development of more drugs, but the cost remains a significant barrier for many people with the disease. If left untreated, the virus continues to spread through drug use and sexual activity.
According to the Nobel Assembly, Alter’s studies at the NIH on transfusion-associated hepatitis “showed that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis.” Houghton used an untested strategy to isolate the new virus’s genome. He did his job at Chiron Corp. in Emeryville, California. Rice, working at Washington University in St. Louis, has provided the final evidence showing that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.
“This was a virus that affected millions of people, and sadly it still is,” said Thomas Perlmann, general secretary of the Nobel Assembly, in an interview following the announcement.
Houghton, 60, was born in the UK. Alter was born in 1935 and Rice in 1952, both in the United States.
“Prior to their work, the discovery of the hepatitis A and B viruses had been a major step forward, but most cases of blood-borne hepatitis remained unexplained,” the assembly said.
“The discovery of the hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining chronic hepatitis cases and made possible blood tests and new drugs that saved millions of lives,” according to the announcement.