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Nobel prize in medicine awarded to US-UK trio for work on hepatitis C

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Two Americans and a British scientist have won the 2020 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their groundbreaking work on blood-borne hepatitis, a health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer around the world.



a man standing in front of a flat screen television: Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images


© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Harvey J Alter at the US National Institutes of Health in Maryland, Charles M Rice from Rockefeller University in New York, and Michael Houghton, a British virologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, were honoured for their joint discovery of the hepatitis C virus, a major cause of liver disease.

The award, announced on Monday by the Nobel assembly from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, is worth 10m Swedish kronor (£870,000), which will be shared among the winners.

“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 Nobel committee said.

Speaking of how he heard the news, Alter said he ignored the phone twice when it rang before 5am local time. “The third time I got up angrily to answer it and it was Stockholm. It’s a weird experience,” he said. “It’s the best alarm clock I’ve ever had.” Rice said he was “absolutely stunned” on receiving the call, adding “it is a success story for team science.”



a man standing in front of a flat screen television: Nobel committee member Patrik Ernfors sits in front of a screen displaying the winners, (from left) Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice, at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday.


© Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
Nobel committee member Patrik Ernfors sits in front of a screen displaying the winners, (from left) Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice, at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday.

The prize may prove controversial. In 2013, Houghton refused a major award for his hepatitis C work because it excluded two former co-workers, George Quo and Qui-Lim Choo who helped him identify the virus. Houghton, who received his PhD from King’s College London in 1977, said his colleagues did not get the recognition they deserved.

David Pendlebury, a citation analyst at Clarivate, a scientific data firm, said he was surprised the Nobel committee had made the award. “There’s no question about the importance of this work and the worthiness of this prize, but one assumes the Nobel committee tries to avoid controversy where possible,” he said. The award threw into high relief the perennial issue of the Nobel’s rule of three, he added, where no more than three researchers can be named for discoveries that have often been team efforts.

Houghton accepted the Nobel but said he hoped future award committees would recognise larger groups of scientists. “Great science, often, is a group of people and I think going forward we somehow need to acknowledge that,” he said.

The scientists’ work transformed the understanding and treatment of hepatitis C, a virus that infects more than 70 million people, and kills 400,000 a year, according to the World Health Organization.

In the 1940s, doctors knew there were two

Nobel prize in medicine awarded to US-UK trio for work on hepatitis C | Science

Two Americans and a British scientist have been awarded the Nobel prize in medicine for their groundbreaking work on blood-borne hepatitis, a health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer around the world.

Harvey J Alter at the US National Institutes of Health in Maryland, Charles M Rice from Rockefeller University in New York, and Michael Houghton, a British virologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, were honoured for their joint discovery of the hepatitis C virus, a major cause of liver disease.

The award may prove controversial as Houghton recently turned down a major prize because it excluded two co-workers at the pharmaceutical firm Chiron who helped him identify the virus. In 2013, he refused the Canada Gairdner international award sometimes known as the “baby Nobel” because it did not recognise the work of his former colleagues George Quo and Qui-Lim Choo.

After reluctantly accepting the prestigious Lasker award in 2000, Houghton, who received his PhD from King’s College London in 1977, said his co-workers did not get the recognition they deserved and decided “I really shouldn’t do this any more.”

David Pendlebury, a citation analyst at Clarivate, a scientific data firm, said he was surprised the Nobel committee made the award knowing it would be problematic. “There’s no question about the importance of this work and the worthiness of this prize, but one assumes the Nobel committee tries to avoid controversy where possible,” he said.

The difficulty, he said, threw into high relief the perennial issue of the Nobel’s rule of three, where no more than three researchers can be named for discoveries that have often been team efforts.

The award, announced on Monday by the Nobel assembly from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, is worth 10m Swedish kronor (£870,000), to be shared among the winners.

At a press briefing after the announcement, Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel committee, told reporters he had told Alter and Rice the news by telephone but had not reached Houghton. Alter said he ignored the phone twice when it rang before 5am local time. “The third time I got up angrily to answer it and it was Stockholm. It’s a weird experience,” he said. “It’s the best alarm clock I’ve ever had.”

The scientists’ work transformed the understanding and treatment of hepatitis C. The virus infects more than 70 million people, with 400,000 dying each year from related conditions such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

In the 1940s, doctors knew there were two main types of infectious hepatitis. The first, transmitted by the hepatitis A virus, spread via contaminated food and water and tended to have little long-term impact on people. The second, spread by blood and body fluids, was more insidious. Patients could be silently infected for years before serious complications emerged – liver cancer and liver scarring known as cirrhosis.

Researchers discovered hepatitis B in the 1960s, but it quickly became clear that it was not the only cause of the