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.
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.”
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.”
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 of antiviral drugs to treat hepatitis C.
However, Dr. Claire Bayntun, clinical consultant in global public health and director of Global Leadership Programmes at the UK’s Royal Society of Medicine, said that the disease still kills 400,000 people each year.
“This is a stark reminder that our developing understanding of the transmission of Covid-19, and the possibilities on the horizon for vaccines and treatment, are not on their own enough to end this global-wide pandemic,” she said.
In the United States, the most common route of transmission for the disease today is through injection-drug use.
The three laureates will share 10 million Swedish kronor, or about $1.07 million.
Alfred Nobel — the inventor of dynamite — in 1895 created a fund that would give the largest portion of his fortune to those who serve humanity. Today, the Nobels recognize outstanding achievements in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economic Sciences. Between 1901 and 2019, almost 600 awards were given.
Nobel’s will stated that one part of his fund would be dedicated to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine.”
The main inscription on one side of the Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, and Literature Nobel Prize medals is the same: “Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes,” loosely translated as: “And they who bettered life on earth by new found mastery.”
The Nobel Prizes for Medicine, Physics and Chemistry are the acme of scientific achievement — honoring great minds and life-changing discoveries.
The latter two will be announced Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, followed by the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, Peace on Friday and the Prize in Economic Sciences next Monday.