Nobel Prize for Medicine goes to Hepatitis C discovery

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Three scientists who discovered the virus Hepatitis C have won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

The winners are British scientist Michael Houghton and US researchers Harvey Alter and Charles Rice.

The Nobel Prize committee said their discoveries ultimately “saved millions of lives”.

The virus is a common cause of liver cancer and a major reason why people need a liver transplant.

In the 1960s, there was huge concern that people receiving donated blood were getting chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation) from an unknown, mysterious disease.

The Nobel Prize committee said a blood transfusion at the time was like “Russian roulette”.

Highly sensitive blood tests mean such cases have now been eliminated in many parts of the world, and effective anti-viral drugs have also been developed.

“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world,” the prize committee said.

However, the virus still infects 70 million people at year and kills around 400,000.

The mystery killer

The viruses Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B had been discovered by the mid-1960s.

But Prof Harvey Alter, while studying transfusion patients at the US National Institutes of Health, showed there was another, mystery, infection at work.

Patients were still getting sick after receiving donated blood.

He showed that giving blood from infected patients to chimpanzees led to them developing the disease.

The mysterious illness became known as “non-A, non-B” hepatitis and the hunt was now on.

Prof Michael Houghton, while at the pharmaceutical firm Chiron, managed to isolated the genetic sequence of the virus. This showed it was a type of flavivirus and it was named Hepatitis C.

And Prof Charles Rice, while at Washington University in St. Louis, applied the finishing touches. He injected a genetically engineered Hepatitis C virus into the liver of chimpanzees and showed this could lead to hepatitis.

Prof Thomas Perlmann, the secretary-general of the Nobel Assembly, said he could only reach Profs Alter and Rice to tell them news.

“They were definitely not sitting by the phone because I called them a couple of times before without any answer.

“But once I reached them, they were extremely surprised and they were really happy and speechless almost, so it was really fun to talk to them.”

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Previous winners

  • 2019 – Sir Peter Ratcliffe, William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza for discovered how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels
  • 2018 – James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo for discovering how to fight cancer using the body’s immune system
  • 2017- Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young for unravelling how bodies keep a circadian rhythm or body clock
  • 2016 – Yoshinori Ohsumi for discovering how cells remain healthy by recycling waste
  • 2015 – William C Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura and Youyou Tu for anti-parasite drug discoveries
  • 2014 – John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the brain’s navigating system

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