Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded for discovery of hepatitis C to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice

The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been jointly awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of hepatitis C virus.

a person standing in front of a television: Thomas Perlmann (right), the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, announces the winners.

Thomas Perlmann (right), the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, announces the winners.

The award is one of the most sought-after global accolades and grants entry into one of the most prestigious clubs in the world.

The Nobel Assembly said in a news release Monday that the three scientists “made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus.” It said the trio had “made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world.”

diagram: The 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet on Monday.

© Niklaus Elmehed/Nobel Prize
The 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet on Monday.

Globally, an estimated 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C virus infection, according to the World Health Organization. A significant number of those who are chronically infected will develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

“It’s long overdue. Hep C arguably has caused just as much, if not more deaths, than the current coronavirus pandemic,” Gilbert Thompson, professor emeritus of clinical lipidology at Imperial College London, told CNN. “It was a major problem and this (work) was an enormous step forward.”

Secretary of the Nobel Assembly Thomas Perlmann said he had to call the winners several times before he finally reached Alter and Rice.

“I woke them up and they were very surprised, they were definitely not sitting by the phone because I called them a couple of times before without any answer,” he said after making the announcement.

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

Cinderella story

The discovery of the hepatitis C virus has been described as a Cinderella story in modern medicine — a relatively overlooked achievement.

In the 1960s, it was a great source of concern that a significant number of people receiving blood transfusions developed chronic hepatitis from a mysterious infectious agent.

US scientist Alter, of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, showed that blood from these hepatitis patents could transmit the disease to chimpanzees. The mysterious illness became known as “non-A, non-B” hepatitis.

Houghton — a British scientist now working at the University of Alberta in Canada — used an untested strategy to isolate the genetic sequence of the new virus that was named hepatitis C while working at Chiron Corporation in the 1980s.

Rice, another American who’s based at Rockefeller University in New York City, provided the final piece of the puzzle, showing that hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.

Thanks to their discoveries, the Nobel committee said that highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated hepatitis being spread through blood transfusions in many parts of the world. Their research also paved the way for the rapid development