The winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine were announced today (5th October 2020) by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet. The prize has been jointly awarded American scientists Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice together with British scientist Michael Houghton.
They have been honored with the Nobel prize for there contributions to the discovery of the deadly Hepatitis C virus (a blood transfusion virus). The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 70 million people infected with this virus globally and is known to cause 400,000 deaths each year.
These Nobel Laureates’ discoveries are going to save millions of lives. Their discoveries has led to the development of testing and cures for Hepatitis C. These developments have almost eradicated post-transfusion Hepatitis in many parts of the world.
About the discovery (in brief)
It was pretty clear to scientists by the 1940s that there are two types of Hepatitis. the first one, Hepatitis A is an infectious disease which spreads through food and polluted water. It has very little to no impact on an individual’s life. On the other hand, the second type of Hepatitis (Later known as Hepatitis B) is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. Hepatitis B is also much more deadly and can lead to chronic diseases like cirrhosis (a Liver disease) and Liver cancer.
The story behind Hepatitis C
in the 1960s, Baruch Blumberg, the winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Phisiology or Medicine showed that the blood-borne hepatitis was caused by a virus which was named hepatitis B. This discovery led to the development of testing and cures for the disease.
Though the discoveries of Baruch Blumberg led to a decrease in the number of blood transfusion Hepatitis cases, many kept coming up. Harvey J. Alter (2020 winner) was very concerned about this. These post-blood Hepatitis cases were neither Hepatitis A nor B. It was an unknown case. This Hepatitis became extremely very mysterious as it had evaded all known virus tests. It came to be known an “non-A, non-B” Hepatitis.
It became one of the deadliest diseases, causing over 1 million deaths every year. Therefore identification of the Virus was now a priority. Here came Michael Houghton (2020 winner). He worked with the DNA from the blood of infected chimpanzees to isolate the genome of the unknown virus. The virus was found and named Hepatitis C
Then comes Charles M. Rice (2020 winner) who tried to find out whether the new Virus was alone the cause of the disease. He worked with clones of the Virus and injected them into chimpanzees. He discovered that the cloned virus was able to cause the same disease and infections in chimpanzees as it was observed for humans.
content credit: nobelprize.org