Nobel season has arrived. The Nobel committee awarded the first of six prizes to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton yesterday. The trio received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus, a major source of liver disease.
Alter, Rice, and Houghton’s work in the 1970s and 1980s has saved millions of lives. “Thanks to their 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,” the committee said during Monday’s announcement.
The World Health Organization estimates there are over 70 million cases of hepatitis worldwide and 400,000 deaths each year. The disease is chronic and a major cause of liver inflammation and cancer.
“Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C,” it added. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus.”
Their discovery explains a major source of blood-borne hepatitis different from the previously discovered hepatitis A and B viruses.
The medicine prize carries more meaning this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Nobel Committee member Patrick Ernfors drew a parallel between this year’s prize and the current rush by millions of scientists around the world to combat COVID-19.
“The first thing you need to do is to identify the causing virus,” he says. “And once that has been done, that is in itself the starting point for development of drugs to treat the disease and also to develop vaccines against the disorder.”
Alter was born in 1935 in New York and carried out his prize-winning studies at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where he is still active.
Rice was born in 1952 in Sacramento, California. He worked on hepatitis at the Washington University in St. Louis and now works at Rockefeller University in New York.
Michael Houghton was born in Britain 1950 and did his studies at the Chiron Corporation in California before moving to the University of Alberta in Canada.
Thomas Perlmann, Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee, reached two of the winners, Alter and Rice, to let them know of the honor.
But it wasn’t easy. “I had to call a couple of times before they answered,” Perlmann says. “They seemed very surprised and very, very happy.”
The prestigious Nobel award brings with it a gold medal and prize money of over $1,118,000. The money comes courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.
The Nobel Committee often recognizes basic science that laid the foundation for treatments in common use today.
Monday’s award is the first of six prizes being announced through October 12. The other prizes will be for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and economics.
(The Nobel Committee announced the 2020 Nobel laureates in Medicine during a news conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday October 5, 2020. Claudio Bresciani/TT via AP)