By David Keyton and Frank Jordans :
AMERICANS Harvey J Alter and Charles M Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton won the Nobel Prize for medicine on Monday for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus, a major source of liver disease that affects millions world-wide. Announcing the prize in Stockholm, the Nobel Committee noted that the trio’s work identified a major source of blood-borne hepatitis that couldn’t be explained by the previously discovered hepatitis A and B viruses. Their work, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, has helped saved millions of lives, the committee said.
“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 committee said. “Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C,” it added. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population.” The World Health Organisation estimates there are over 70 million cases of hepatitis C world-wide and 400,000 deaths from it each year. The disease is chronic and a major cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis requiring liver transplants.
The medicine prize carried particular significance this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted the importance that medical research has for societies and economies around the world. Will Irving, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, said that identifying hepatitis C had been the “holy grail” in medicine. “After hepatitis A and B were discovered in the 1970s, it was clear there was still at least one other virus or more that were causing liver damage,” he said. “We knew there was a virus in the blood supply, because when people had blood transfusion they would get liver damage,” Irving said. “It was recognised as a risk but there was nothing we could do.
We didn’t know what the virus was and we couldn’t test for it.” Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors drew a parallel between this year’s prize and the current rush by millions of scientists around the world to combat the coronavirus pandemic. “The first thing you need to do is to identify the causing virus,” he told reporters. “And once that has been done, that is, in itself, the starting point for development of drugs to treat the disease and also to develop vaccines against the disorder.” “So the actual discovery, viral discovery itself, is a critical moment,” said Ernfors.
Unlike hepatitis A, which is transmitted via food or water and causes an acute infection that can last a few weeks, hepatitis B and C are transmitted through blood. American scientist Baruch Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967 and received the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine, but this did not explain all cases of chronic hepatitis, a disease that was becoming more common even in apparently healthy people who had received or given blood. “Before the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, it was a bit like Russian roulette to get a blood transfusion,” said Nobel Committee member Nils-Goran Larsson.