The decades-old discovery led to the development of tests and antivirals that have saved millions.
The 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to three scientists for their discovery of the virus hepatitis C.
British scientist at University of Alberta Michael Houghton and US researchers Harvey Alter, of the National Institutes of Health, and Charles Rice, at Rockefeller University, are the winners.
The Nobel Prize Committee made the announcement on Monday in Stockholm, saying that the hepatitis C discovery ultimately contributed to saving “millions of lives.”
The disease is known for causing liver cancer and cirrhosis and is the reason behind liver transplants for many people.
The 1960s witnessed a mammoth concern that people receiving donated blood were contracting chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation) from an unknown, mysterious disease.
At that time blood transfusion was like “Russian roulette,” said Nils-Goran Larsson of the Nobel Prize Committee.
The three winners’ discovery led to the development of highly sensitive blood tests and “these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health,” the committee said in a press release.
This went hand in hand with the development of effective antiviral drugs.
It is common for the Nobel Committee to grant awards for foundational discoveries that contributed to practical modern applications. “It takes time before it’s fully apparent how beneficial a discovery is … the antiviral drugs that emerged as a consequence of this have been much more recent,” said Nobel Committee Secretary-General Thomas Perlmann.
“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world,” the Nobel Prize committee stressed.
Approximately 70 million people suffer infections every year and the virus kills around 400,000 annually, according to WHO.
The mysterious killer
The mid-1960s witnessed the discovery of the viruses hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
While conducting a study on transfusion patients at the US National Institutes of Health in 1972, Professor Harvey Alter found out there was another, mystery, infection at work.
Receiving blood transfusions from donors without hepatitis B somehow led patients to contract hepatitis.
Alter found that injecting the blood of infected people caused chimpanzees to develop the disease.
“Non-A, non-B” hepatitis became the label of the mysterious illness and the hunt was now on.
In 1989, Professor Michael Houghton was able to isolate the DNA sequence of the virus with pharmaceutical firm Chiron Corporation. This helped determine that the disease was a type of flavivirus and it received the label hepatitis C.
Rice later confirmed that injecting a cloned hepatitis virus led to a persistent infection in chimpanzees and could reproduce a disease identical to that in humans.
In 1997, Professor Charles Rice finalized the work while at Washington University in St. Louis. He confirmed that injecting a genetically engineered hepatitis C virus into the liver of chimpanzees could lead to hepatitis.
The Nobel news only reached Professors Alter and Rice on Monday morning. Perlmann said he could not reach Houghton.
“They were definitely not sitting by the phone because I called them a couple of times before without any answer.
“But once I reached them, they were extremely surprised and they were really happy and speechless almost, so it was really fun to talk to them.”
The Nobel laureates who discovered hepatitis C will jointly receive a SEK 10 million ($1.1 million) prize.
The Nobel Committee will announce prizes in other categories through October 12.