Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Three Scientists Who Discovered Hepatitis C

Grant Boone
November 19, 2020

National Institutes of Health medical scientist and University of Rochester graduate Harvey Alter has been awarded a 2020 Nobel Prize for work that has led to diagnostic tests and treatments for a life-threatening form of hepatitis.

"Prior to their work, the discovery of the hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained", the assembly says.

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, greatly improving global health", the Nobel committee said.

The joint prize is split among three virologists: Harvey Alter of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH); Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta, Edmonton in Canada; and Charles Rice of Rockefeller University in NY.

Among his many accolades, Alter has received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest honor granted to civilians in United States government public health service, as well as the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, the Landsteiner Prize from the German Society for Transfusion Medicine and Immunohematology, the James Blundell Award of the British Blood Transfusion Society, and France's Inserm Medal, among many others. Hepatitis A, meanwhile, is not a blood-borne illness and can be spread through close personal contact.

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. Subsequent studies also demonstrated that the unknown infectious agent had the characteristics of a virus that at first was called "non-A, non-B" hepatitis. Alter confirmed the presence of the virus in 1988 and the full discovery was announced in 1989 in the journal Science.

Identification of the novel virus was now a high priority.

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This new virus could not be isolated for several years using the traditional techniques for virus isolation.

In the 1980s, Houghton managed to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus, while Rice proved that the pathogen could replicate and cause infection. Houghton and his co-workers created a collection of DNA fragments from nucleic acids found in the blood of an infected chimpanzee.

"Rice pioneered novel methods for growing and studying hepatitis C virus (HCV), including a mouse with a human liver that allowed the first studies of HCV replication and tests of candidate drugs in a small animal model", his biography reads.

The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

Dr Harvey J. Alter in 2020 [Credit: NIH/Chiachi Chang].

Rice was born in Sacramento in 1952 and received his bachelor's degree in zoology at UC Davis in 1974, according to his biography page for Rockefeller University, where he has been a professor since 2001. This was the final proof that Hepatitis C virus alone could cause the unexplained cases of transfusion-mediated hepatitis.

The 2020 Nobel season continues Tuesday with the physics prize, with astrophysicists Shep Doeleman of the USA and Germany's Heino Falcke seen as possible winners for work that led to the first directly observed image of a black hole in April 2019.

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