Two American medical researchers and a British scientist were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology on Monday, September 5 for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus--Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice.
The Nobel Committee announced the prize in Stockholm on Monday, September 5. It said that the work by these scientists has made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne Hepatitis, which is one of the most serious health issues that cause cirrhosis—a late stage of scarring of the liver—and liver cancer in people around the world. The committee also said that the trio's work makes possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.
In a statement, the committee said it is because of 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."
It also added that the discovery made by the scientists also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at Hepatitis C and thanks to their findings, for the first time in the history the disease can now be cured, "raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population."
Acknowledgment of Revolutionary Work Several Years Later
Alter carried out his prize-winning studies at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Rice started his research working at the Washington University in St Louis before moving to Rockefeller University in New York and Houghton undertook his studies at the Chiron Corporation in California before moving to the University of Alberta in Canada.
The Hepatitis C discovery took place in the late 1980s. It happened when scientists noticed that tests for the Hepatitis B virus accounted for only a minority of such cases resulting from a blood transfusion. However, unlike Hepatitis B and C, the Hepatitis A virus is not a blood-born illness and it can spread through close contacts.
Despite the Coronavirus pandemic's huge effect on the world and pointing out the need, as well as the importance of medicine and science-related research, the 2020 winners were not expected to be COVID-19 related. It is due to the Nobel Prize winners usually picked up from the discoveries they made many years ago and provided the basis of practical applications used in today's world most commonly.
A Long Battle Against Hepatitis C
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, approved the first-ever treatment for hepatitis C, which is 10 times more infectious than HIV, in 1991. This treatment consisted of interferon-alpha-2b. But only a few patients receiving the treatment achieved a sustained virologic response and the cure rate was only 6 percent at that time. Since then the efficacy of hepatitis C treatment has increased significantly. Even some of the most recent therapies have helped to clear the virus in up to 90 percent of patients.
In 2010 FDA approved the first rapid blood test for hepatitis C. It allows at-risk patients aged 15 years or older to be tested for the disease, with results available in only 20 minutes. Next year, the World Health Organization (WHO) and then-President Barack Obama declared July 28 to be officially recognized as World Hepatitis Day.
In 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) firs recommends Hepatitis C Screening for Baby Boomers and in 2013, the FDA approved new antiviral agents. Now, WHO is committed to eliminating viral hepatitis (B and C) by 2030.