Hepatitis C discovery earns trio Nobel Prize for Medicine
Two Americans and a Briton won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday for identifying the Hepatitis C virus, in work spanning decades that has helped to limit the spread of the fatal disease and develop antiviral drugs to cure it.
Harvey J Alter, Charles M Rice and Michael Houghton were awarded for their breakthrough that led to the development of blood tests and new medicines against hepatitis C. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population,” said the Nobel assembly statement.
Like hepatitis B and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, hepatitis C virus is a blood-borne virus.
In the late 1969, Alter showed that a non-A, non-B blood-borne virus also caused liver disease, and in 1989, Houghton successfully cloned the virus by introducing viral DNA from an infected animal into bacteria, and using human antibodies to screen for its genetic sequence. This pioneering molecular biology technique to identify a virus led to tests to screen blood for hepatitis C virus, which increased blood safety. Rice cloned the virus to demonstrate that it alone caused disease.
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“The main work on hepatitis C virus discovery was Houghton’s, though Alter suspected it much earlier but couldn’t prove it. Harvey Alter...wrote a poem in 1988 titled, “I Can’t See the Forest for the HBsAgs”(hepatitis B virus surface antigens), which moved scientists to tears. Another person who contributed to blood safety was the Indian doctor Girish Vyas, who was the director of the blood bank at UCSF Medical Center in the US from 1969-88, and found unexplained cases of jaundice that hepatitis A and B couldn’t account for,” said Dr Shiv K Sarin, director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences.