The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists whose discoveries led to the identification of Hepatitis C virus
According to a press release by Nobel Assembly, Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice are the three scientists who worked together and identified the Hepatitis C virus. The three scientists will be awarded jointly the Nobel Prize. Also, each will receive one third of the prize share of $1.07 million.
The announcement was made at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. In the press release, the committee stated: “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population.”
What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis, or liver inflammation, is mainly caused by viral infections. Other important causes are alcohol abuse, viral infections or autoimmune diseases. For years it has been clear that there are two main types of hepatitis. The first one named Hepatitis A can be transmitted by polluted water or food and has little impact on the infected people. Hepatitis A is also not transmissible from person to person.
The second type is Hepatitis B, and this type is viral. Blood and bodily fluids can transmit it. Moreover, it is also more dangerous because it can lead to chronic conditions such as cirrhosis and even liver cancer. This form of hepatitis can be present without showing any warnings. Because of that, many individuals can be infected for many years before serious complications arise.
“Blood-borne hepatitis is associated with significant morbidity and mortality, and causes more than a million deaths per year world-wide, thus making it a global health concern on a scale comparable to HIV-infection and tuberculosis,” Nobel committee stated.
Identification of Hepatitis C virus – early stages
In 1960’s, Baruch Blumberg identified Hepatits B virus, this discovery leading to the development of an effective vaccine. For this breakthrough, Blumberg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1976.
At that time, blood tests for the newly discovered hepatitis B virus helped reducing the number of cases. Harvey J. Alter was working at that time at the US National Institutes of Health. He and his colleagues demonstrated that even though blood tests and vaccines were developed for hepatitis B, a large number of cases remained.
It was a great source of concern that a significant number of those receiving blood transfusions developed chronic hepatitis due to an unknown infectious agent. However, subsequent studies demonstrated that the unknown agent had the characteristics of a virus. Subsequently, that mysterious illness became known as “non-A, non-B” hepatitis.
The first scientist to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus was Michael Houghton. He did that, working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron in the 1980s. He and his colleagues used the blood of infected chimpanzees to put together the virus genom. Nowadays, that virus is known as Hepatitis C.
This discovery was decisive but one more question still remained: could the virus alone cause hepatitis? Charles M. Rice, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, answered this quetion positively. He and his group suspected that a region in the Hepatitis C genome could be important for virus replication.
Plans for a vaccine
According to World Health Organization, in 2016 “approximately 399 000 people died from Hepatitis C, mostly from cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer).” Antiviral medicines can cure more than 95% of persons with Hepatitis C infection. Thereby, the risk of death from cirrhosis and liver cancer is reduced, but access to treatment is low.
Because of this Nobel Prize-awarded discovery, highly sesitive blood tests for the virus are available. These tests have essentialy eradicated post-transfusion hepatitis.
However, a vaccine is currently not available and this is the focal point of research in this domain. Because of this, numerous researchers around the world, including Dr. Houghton are now at work to achieve this goal.