British scientist Michael Houghton and American researchers Harvey Alter and Charles Rice who discovered Hepatitis C virus have been jointly awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
In a press release issued on October 4, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine stated that the three scientists "have made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world."
"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. Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C,” the press release stated, adding that for the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population.
It is worth noting that the methodical studies of transfusion-associated hepatitis by Alter demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis. Meanwhile, Houghton used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the new virus that was named Hepatitis C virus. And Rice provided the final evidence showing that Hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.
In the 1940’s, it was already known that there are two main types of infectious hepatitis: Hepatitis A transmitted by polluted water or food; and another type transmitted through blood and bodily fluids, which represents a much more serious threat. In the 1960’s, Baruch Blumberg determined that this type was caused by a virus which came to be known Hepatitis B; he won the the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for this discovery. However, many people receiving blood transfusions still developed chronic hepatitis due to an unknown infectious agent that was neither Hepatitis A or B, which was followed by rigorous efforts that eventually ended up in the discovery of Hepatitis C by the three scientists.