Three scientists win Nobel Prize in Medicine for work in discovering hepatitis C virus
Monday marks the start of Nobel Prize week, and the Swedish committee kicked things off by handing out the first award to three virologists.
Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice have jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. Their research provided the foundation for testing and antivirals that can help those infected receive treatment, as well as a potential vaccine for the liver disease.
“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population,” the Nobel committee said in a statement.
Alter, the elder statesman of the group, began his work in the hepatitis field back in the 1960s and 1970s, around the time when the hepatitis B virus was first discovered. Working at the NIH, he had been studying the occurrence of the disease in patients who had received blood transfusions when he noticed that not all of the cases could be explained by the newly identified virus.
Nearly a decade later, Houghton and his co-workers at the pharmaceutical company Chiron isolated the genetic sequence of the virus through experiments with chimpanzees. By studying the blood of the infected animals, Houghton was able to predict which of the DNA fragments within the genome came from the chimpanzee and which came from the virus.
The Chiron team was then able to clone the viral DNA. While searching for antibody responses, Houghton discovered an RNA virus derived from the Flavivirus family that was ultimately determined to be hepatitis C.
Houghton’s work proved pivotal, but one major question remained — could the virus alone cause hepatitis C? Rice, then a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, began investigating if the cloned virus could replicate and cause disease. He determined that a previously uncharacterized region in the virus genome could be influential in replication, and engineered an RNA variant to determine this region’s effect.
After injecting the variant into chimpanzees, Rice detected the virus in their blood, confirming that hepatitis C could cause disease and replicate on its own.
Alter continues to work at the NIH as the chief of infectious disease at its Clinical Center. Houghton, the only non-American in the group being from the UK, is currently a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. Rice now works at Rockefeller University in New York.
The Nobel Committee drew a parallel between the work in hepatitis C and research being currently undertaken to try to identify and cure the coronavirus at the center of the Covid-19 pandemic, per an Associated Press report. Committee member Patrik Ernfors called the discovery of a virus a “critical moment.”
“The first thing you need to do is to identify the causing virus,” he told reporters. “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.”
According to numbers from the WHO, there are over 70 million cases of hepatitis C around the world with approximately 400,000 deaths per year.