Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, along with Britain’s Michael Houghton, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, paving the way for a cure, the Nobel jury said.
All three were honored for their “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 jury said.
The World Health Organization estimates that there are around 70 million hepatitis C infections worldwide, causing around 400,000 deaths each year. It is characterized by poor appetite, vomiting, fatigue, and jaundice.
Thanks to the trio’s discoveries, 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 Nobel committee said.
His discoveries allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs targeting hepatitis C.
“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,” the jury said.
Alter, 85, told Swedish radio that he was shocked to receive a call from the committee early in the morning, saying it was “mind-blowing.”
“I didn’t even realize that this was the day the Nobel prizes were going to be awarded,” he added.
“Seeing so many people heal is amazing,” he told the Nobel Foundation.
Before the trio’s work, the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward – the discovery of Hepatitis B won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1976 – but most cases of hepatitis B transmitted by the blood remained unexplained.
The discovery of the hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and “made possible blood tests and new drugs that have saved millions of lives,” the Nobel committee said.
Alter was credited with his pioneering work studying the occurrence of hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions, determining that their disease was neither Hepatitis A nor B.
Houghton drew on Alter’s work to isolate the genetic sequence of the new virus.
Rice, 68, later completed the puzzle by using genetic engineering to show that it was only the new strain, hepatitis C, that was causing patients to get sick.
The trio will share in the prize of 10 million Swedish crowns (about 1.1 million dollars, 950,000 euros).
In 2013, Houghton reportedly turned down Canada’s International Gairdner Award because it did not include two of his key collaborators who worked with him at the pharmaceutical group Chiron Corp.
Houghton, Alter and Rice would normally receive their award from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel, who created the awards in his will.
But the in-person ceremony was canceled this year due to the pandemic and replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.
– Pandemic effect on prizes? –
The award for work on a virus comes as the world battles the new coronavirus pandemic, which has put the global spotlight on science and research.
“The pandemic is a great crisis for humanity, but it illustrates how important science is,” said the director of the Nobel Foundation, Lars Heikensten.
This year the awards ceremony directly related to the coronavirus was not expected, since Nobel Prize-winning research usually takes many years to be verified.
But the chairman of the Nobel medicine committee, Patrik Ernfors, said Monday’s award was “relatively easy to relate to the current situation.”
“The first thing to do is to identify the causative virus and, once done, that in itself is the starting point for the development of drugs to treat the disease and also to develop vaccines against the disorder. So the actual viral discovery itself is a critical moment. “
The 2020 Nobel season continues on Tuesday with the physics prize, with astrophysicists Shep Doeleman of the US and Heino Falcke of Germany as potential winners for work that led to the first directly observed image of a black hole in April. of 2019.
Also mentioned have been the American mathematician Peter Shor, who paved the way for current research on quantum computers, or the Frenchman Alain Aspect for his work on quantum entanglement.
Chemistry and literature awards continue on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Meanwhile, speculation ahead of Friday’s peace award has focused on press freedom groups, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and other climate activists, or various UN organizations.
The economics award ends on Monday, October 12.