The Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for discovering the hepatitis C virus.
The trio are being rewarded for their “decisive contribution” to the fight against this hepatitis, “a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer” around the world, the Nobel jury said in the announcement.
“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, vastly improving global health,” the committee said.
“Their discovery also enabled the rapid development of antiviral drugs targeting hepatitis C,” he added. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating the hepatitis C virus from the world’s population.”
In the late 1970s, Harvey Alter had identified a mysterious liver contamination during transfusions when it was not linked to hepatitis A or hepatitis B, the jury noted, helping in particular to reduce transmission by this means to almost nothing.
Years later, in 1989, Michael Houghton and his Canadian-based team are credited with discovering the genetic sequence of the virus.
Charles Rice, 68, then spent many years unraveling how the virus replicated, work that led to the emergence of a revolutionary new treatment earlier in the decade, sofosbuvir. “It provided the final proof that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause disease,” said Patrik Ernfors, chairman of the committee that selects the winners.
“I think it is quite easy to make the connection with the current situation,” he said. “The first thing to do is to identify the virus involved, and once this is done, it is the starting point for the development of treatments for the disease, as well as vaccines. So the viral discovery is a critical moment,” he emphasized .
The World Health Organization estimates that there are more than 70 million cases of hepatitis worldwide and 400,000 deaths each year. The disease is chronic and is one of the main causes of liver inflammation and cancer.
The prestigious Nobel Prize comes with a gold medal and a prize money of 10 million Swedish crowns (more than $ 1,118,000), courtesy of a legacy left 124 years ago by the creator of the prize, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.
The medicine award had special significance this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted the importance of medical research to societies and economies around the world.
The Nobel Committee often recognizes the basic science that has laid the foundation for practical applications in common use today.
The award is the first of six awards to be announced through October 12. The other awards are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and economics.