Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to US-UK trio for discovery of hepatitis C virus

Thomas Perlmann (R), the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, speaks to announce the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (On screen L-R) American Harvey Alter, Briton Michael Houghton and American Charles Rice, as Nobel Committee members Patrik Ernfors (L) and Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam look on, during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 5, 2020. – Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice as well as Briton Michael Houghton win the 2020 Nobel Medicine Prize for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been jointly awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of hepatitis C virus.

The award is one of the most sought-after global accolades and grants entry into one of the most
prestigious clubs in the world.
The Nobel Assembly said in a news release Monday that the three scientists “made seminal discoveries
that led to the identification of a novel virus.” It said the trio had “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 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet on Monday.

Globally, an estimated 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C virus infection, according to the World
Health Organization. A significant number of those who are chronically infected will develop cirrhosis or
liver cancer.
“It’s long overdue. Hep C arguably has caused just as much, if not more deaths, than the current
coronavirus pandemic,” Gilbert Thompson, professor emeritus of clinical lipidology at Imperial College
London, told CNN. “It was a major problem and this (work) was an enormous step forward.”
Secretary of the Nobel Assembly Thomas Perlmann said he had to call the winners several times before
he finally reached Alter and Rice.
“I woke them up and they were very surprised, they were definitely not sitting by the phone because I
called them a couple of times before without any answer,” he said after making the announcement.
“But once I reached them they were extremely surprised and really happy and speechless almost, so it
was really fun to talk to them.”
almost, so it was really fun to talk to them.”

Cinderella story

The discovery of the hepatitis C virus has been described as a Cinderella story in modern medicine — a
relatively overlooked achievement.
In the 1960s, it was a great source of concern that a significant number of people receiving blood
transfusions developed chronic hepatitis from a mysterious infectious agent.
US scientist Alter, of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, showed that blood from these
hepatitis patents could transmit the disease to chimpanzees. The mysterious illness became known as
“non-A, non-B” hepatitis.
Why it's so hard to guess who's going to get a Nobel Prize
Houghton — a British scientist now working at the University of Alberta in Canada — used an untested
strategy to isolate the genetic sequence of the new virus that was named hepatitis C while working at
Chiron Corporation in the 1980s.
Rice, another American who’s based at Rockefeller University in New York City, provided the final piece
of the puzzle, showing that hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.
Thanks to their discoveries, the Nobel committee said that highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are
now available and these have essentially eliminated hepatitis being spread through blood transfusions in
many parts of the world. Their research also paved the way for the rapid development of antiviral drugs
to treat hepatitis C.
However, Dr. Claire Bayntun, clinical consultant in global public health and director of Global Leadership
Programmes at the UK’s Royal Society of Medicine, said that the disease still kills 400,000 people each
“This is a stark reminder that our developing understanding of the transmission of Covid-19, and the
possibilities on the horizon for vaccines and treatment, are not on their own enough to end this global-
wide pandemic,” she said.
In the United States, the most common route of transmission for the disease today is through injection-

Life-changing discoveries

The three laureates will share 10 million Swedish kronor, or about $1.07 million.

Thomas Perlmann (right), the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, announces the winners.

Alfred Nobel — the inventor of dynamite — in 1895 created a fund that would give the largest portion of
his fortune to those who serve humanity. Today, the Nobels recognize outstanding achievements in the
fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economic Sciences.
Between 1901 and 2019, almost 600 awards were given.
Nobel’s will stated that one part of his fund would be dedicated to “the person who shall have made the
most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine.”
The main inscription on one side of the Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, and Literature Nobel Prize medals
is the same: “Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes,” loosely translated as: “And they who bettered
life on earth by new found mastery.”
The Nobel Prizes for Medicine, Physics and Chemistry are the acme of scientific achievement —
honoring great minds and life-changing discoveries.
The latter two will be announced Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, followed by the Nobel Prize for
Literature on Thursday, Peace on Friday and the Prize in Economic Sciences next Monday.( CNN / IM )
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