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The Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to the trio that discovered hepatitis C

Earlier today, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists, Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice, who discovered the hepatitis C virus. The Hepatitis C virus was first discovered in 1989 and had previously been called non-A, non-B hepatitis.

a hand holding a coin: For many years, not knowing what hepatitis C was made blood transfusions incredibly risky.

© Provided by Popular Science
For many years, not knowing what hepatitis C was made blood transfusions incredibly risky.

Globally, an estimated 71 million people currently are infected with hepatitis C, which causes liver disease. In 2016, nearly 400,000 people died from cirrhosis and liver cancer as a result of the virus.

The first form of hepatitis, now called hepatitis A, was discovered in the 1940s, and was spread by contaminated food and water. By the 1960′s, researchers discovered another form, hepatitis B, a blood-borne liver infection. However, some patients undergoing blood transfusions were still mysteriously falling ill, thanks to a then-unknown pathogen we now know as hepatitis C, making a transfusion during this time a bit like “Russian roulette,” according to the Guardian.

Nobel-winner Alter, now at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, made the first giant leap towards uncovering hepatitis C back in the 1970′s when he isolated a third blood-borne pathogen in addition to hepatitis A and B that could transmit the disease to chimpanzees, the only other susceptible host besides humans, according to the Nobel Institute.

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Next, Houghton, who was then working for a pharmaceutical firm named Chiron, collected DNA and RNA from infected chimpanzees to try and identify the mysterious virus. Houghton and his team then put the collection of DNA into bacteria to see if any of the bacterial colonies could recreate a protein typically only created by the mysterious virus, which would lead them to the culprit causing the disease. Only one out of a million colonies were able to code the protein for the virus, and the researchers were able to show that the virus belonged to the Flavivirus family, and it was named hepatitis C. Blood tests were developed, largely knocking out any chance of the virus spreading through blood transmissions, according to Science Magazine.

a hand holding a coin: For many years, not knowing what hepatitis C was made blood transfusions incredibly risky.

© Adam Baker
For many years, not knowing what hepatitis C was made blood transfusions incredibly risky.

Rice, then a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, took the final step in proving that the virus alone could cause the chronic disease seen in humans by testing out genetic variants in chimpanzee livers, according to the Nobel Committee.

Now, antiviral treatments for hepatitis C can cure nearly 95 percent of infected patients. But as of five years ago, there were 23.7 new hepatitis C infections per 100,000 people according to the WHO. Activities such as injected drug use, using unsterilized medical equipment, and sexual practices that can expose a partner to blood are still common transmission avenues.

Scientists hope that this prize will bring momentum to research that’ll help rid the world of

Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Scientists Who Discovered Hepatitis C

Numerous life saving treatments have also been developed for the hepatitis C virus, many of which are in regular use today. When available, hepatitis C antivirals can block the virus from multiplying in the body, and can cure people of the infection in weeks. Researchers around the world are now at work on a vaccine that could prevent future hepatitis C virus infections and disease.

“For the longest time, we had nothing to treat this virus with,” said Dr. Guadalupe Garcia Tsao, a cirrhosis expert at Yale University. Preventing the disease, she added, was also nearly impossible without accurate tests. “For most of my career, it was the bane of my existence. But from the moment they made these discoveries, the numbers of sick people went down dramatically.”

Even hepatitis C drugs that originally failed to clear the approval pipeline have found new use in modern times: Remdesivir, one of only a handful of treatments with emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to treat severely sick Covid-19 patients, was originally developed as an antiviral against the hepatitis C virus.

“That’s really the story of investing in basic science, and having it pay off later down the road,” said Stephanie Langel, a virologist and immunologist at Duke University.

Dr. Alter, an American, is a medical researcher for the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. Born in 1935 in New York, he earned a medical degree at the University of Rochester before joining the N.I.H. in 1961.

Dr. Rice, born in Sacramento in 1952, is a professor at Rockefeller University in New York. From 2001 to 2018, he was the scientific and executive director at the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C. He earned his Ph.D. from Caltech in 1981.

In an interview Monday morning, Dr. Rice described the utter shock he felt at receiving the early morning phone call notifying him of the award.

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Nobel Prize for medicine awarded to trio who discovered Hepatitis C virus

The Nobel Committee announced Monday that three scientists will split the 2020 Nobel Price for Physiology or Medicine for their joint discovery of the virus that causes Hepatitis C, a blood-borne illness that damages the liver. The three scientists — Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice plus Michael Houghton of Britain — built on the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses, the Nobel Committee said, and their “discovery of Hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.”

The discovery of the Hepatitis C virus allowed for sensitive tests that have “essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health,” and “also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at Hepatitis C,” the committee explained. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population.”

Alter, Rice, and Houghton will split the $1.1 million award. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s laureates will be awarded their prizes in televised ceremonies in their home countries, then invited to celebrate at the traditional banquet in Stockholm alongside the 2021 laureates, assuming the pandemic is sufficiently contained.

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A woman in Australia discovered her headaches were caused by tapeworm larvae in her brain

The aches were caused by tapeworm larvae that had taken up space in her brain, according to a new study on her case by the The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene published on September 21.

The woman, who never traveled overseas, is the first native case of the disease in Australia, the study said. Previous Australian cases of this infection were from immigrants or returning residents who traveled to regions where the disease is endemic to, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

For the past seven years, the woman complained of headaches that would occur two- or three-times a month and went away with prescribed migraine medication. However, her latest headache lasted for more than a week and came with more severe visual symptoms, including the blurring of her central vision.

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An MRI of her brain led doctors to believe that a tumor might be the cause of her pain, but after operating and removing the lesion, they discovered it was actually a cyst full of tapeworm larvae. After the removal, she required no further treatment.

This condition is known as neurocysticercosis, which can cause neurological symptoms when larval cysts develop in the brain. People who get the parasitic infection do so by swallowing eggs found in the feces of a person who has an intestinal tapeworm, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Neurocysticercosis is deadly, and a leading cause of adult onset epilepsy worldwide, the CDC said.

Tapeworms typically take up residence in human’s intestines, an infection known as taeniasis, and some can pass on their own without medication. The parasite is commonly transmitted when people consume undercooked pork — pigs are often intermediary tapeworm hosts — or come in contact with food, water and soil contaminated with tapeworm eggs.

The woman, who worked as a barista, was considered to be at no or very low risk of infection with tapeworm larvae but is believed to have somehow accidentally ingested tapeworm eggs released from a carrier.

A man from Texas had a similar experience, suffering from splitting headaches for more than a decade that turned out to be caused by tapeworm larvae that became lodged in his brain’s fourth ventricle.

The best line of defense against similar infection is cooking meat to safe temperatures, washing your hands with soap before eating and only eating food you can ensure was cooked in sanitary conditions.

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