Nobel Prize: Trio of scientists honored for discovering Hepatitis C virus

Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice have been awarded for the discovery of hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough that led to tests and cures for the dangerous disease.

“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world,” the Nobel Committee said in announcing the prize in Stockholm.

Scientists had long known about the hepatitis A and B viruses, but they were poking in the dark trying to find the hepatitis (hep) C virus. It took decades of work from Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton to make that breakthrough.

As is often the case, the Nobel Prize was awarded to breakthroughs that made a practical difference in the world — and this certainly fit the bill. Identifying the hepatitis C virus has led to efficient screens for the virus, making blood supplied for transfusions much safer than it was in the past. Up until the 1960s, medics were gravely concerned about a number of people receiving blood transfusions containing a mysterious infectious agent. That turned out to be the hep C virus.

“We take it for granted that if you get a transfusion, you’re not going to get sick from that transfusion. That was not the case before but is certainly the case now,” Rice said in an interview with AP. Before the tests, the risk of contracting the disease from a transfusion was about 1 in 10, now it’s closer to 1 in a million.

The discovery paved the way for treatments to save thousands every year. This is currently the only chronic viral infection that can be reliably cured, using one of several potent drugs. Without treatment, the virus can cause liver scars, cancer, or even damage requiring a liver transplant.

However, despite remarkable progress, the disease still affects over 70 million people every year, killing 400,000. We have the technology to save these people, it’s all about making the drugs cheaper and more available.

“What we need is the political will to eradicate it” and to make the drugs affordable enough to do it, Alter said.

The award comes at a very important time for the medical community around the world. In a statement, the Nobel Assembly said the isolation of Hepatitis C had marked a “landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases”.

“It takes time before it’s fully apparent how beneficial a discovery is,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee.

This serves as a stark reminder that dealing with COVID-19 isn’t something that will happen overnight — even for a disease that’s been studied for decades and for which treatment exists, making it really go away with treatment alone is turning to be a massive challenge.

“To control an epidemic, you need to have a vaccine,” Houghton said. For “diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, we’ve had cheap drugs available for decades, and yet we still have big epidemics of those diseases.”

As for the three new laureates, they weren’t exactly hugging the phone in expectation. Perlmann struggled to reach Alter and Rice by phone.

“I had to call a couple of times before they answered,” Perlmann said. “They seemed very surprised and very, very happy.”

The Nobel Prize for Medicine is pretty much the highest recognition you can obtain in the field. The prize honors great minds that made breakthrough discoveries that better the world, with an emphasis on science that paved the way for practical applications. The prize also comes with 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.1 million), as was requested by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, 124 years ago.

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