Nobel prize for medicine goes to discoverers of the hepatitis C virus

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Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice

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The 2020 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice for discoveries about the hepatitis C virus. The trio’s work led to treatments for the liver-destroying disease.

These discoveries have saved millions of lives worldwide and led to the development of drugs that cure 95 per cent of people treated, the Nobel committee said. This could lead to the elimination of the disease.

In the 1970s, Harvey Alter at the US National Institutes of Health showed that a liver-damaging disease in people given blood transfusions wasn’t due to the hepatitis A or B viruses, and that an unknown infectious agent was responsible.

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Michael Houghton at Chiron Corporation identified antibodies to hepatitis C, leading to the development of a blood test in 1990. This meant blood contaminated with the virus could be identified, preventing people being infected via blood transfusions.

Charles Rice at Rockefeller University in New York developed ways of growing and studying the hepatitis virus. His work confirmed that the virus was the cause of the disease, and was key to the development of the antiviral drugs now used to treat it.

“These developments have saved millions of lives worldwide,” said Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam of the Nobel committee, during a press conference today.

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