Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for Discovery of Hepatitis C Virus

A trio of scientists from the U.S. and the U.K. have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, a major cause of liver cancer.

Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and Briton Michael Houghton were awarded the prize for “a landmark achievement in our ongoing battle against viral infections,” the Nobel Assembly said.

The scientists have “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,” the Assembly said.

Before the findings of their research in the 1970s, discoveries of the hepatitis A virus—transmitted via polluted water or food—and hepatitis B —transmitted via the blood—had been critical steps forward, but most blood-borne hepatitis cases were still unexplained. Blood-borne viruses are more insidious and pose a more serious threat to health. “The 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 Assembly added.

It also explained cases of chronic hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions, where the cause was not the hepatitis A or B viruses. Dr. Alter’s work at the U.S. National Institutes of Health demonstrated that the unknown infectious agent had the characteristics of a virus.

Dr. Houghton, working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron, isolated the genetic sequence of the then-unknown virus, and Dr. Rice, then a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, went on to note a part of the genome that could be important for virus replication and proved that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause the unexplained cases of hepatitis in blood transfusion patients.

Thomas Perlmann, secretary general of the Nobel Assembly, said, “It’s hard to find something that is of such benefit to mankind,” as the work done for this year’s prize. “It’s the discovery of a virus that has led to improvements for millions of people around the world,” he said.

Last year’s prize went to a trio of U.S. and British scientists for discovering how cells sense and adapt to the amount of oxygen available.

Write to Joanna Sugden at [email protected]

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