The discovery of Hepatitis C that earned 3 scientists

 2020 Nobel Prize for Medicine

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and a major cause of cirrhosis, liver inflammation and liver cancer. It can be transmitted through blood and contaminated injections.

Globally, around 71 million people have chronic infection with the Hepatitis C virus, according to the World Health Organization.

The scientists behind the discovery

American scientists Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, and Michael Houghton of the UK, have been honoured with this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery and identification of Hepatitis C virus.

The three laureates will share 10 million Swedish kronor.

Harvey Alter

Charles Rice

Michael Houghton

Mystery Infection at Work

Mid 1960s: A large number of people receiving donated blood were getting sick from an unknown disease. The Nobel Prize committee said a blood transfusion at the time was like “Russian roulette”.

1970s: Harvey Alter showed that giving blood from infected patients to chimpanzees led to them developing this mystery disease, which came to be known as “non-A, non-B” hepatitis.

The life-changing discovery

1989: Michael Houghton managed to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus. This showed it was a type of flavivirus and it was named Hepatitis C.

1997: Charles Rice, injected a genetically engineered Hepatitis C virus into the liver of chimpanzees and showed this could lead to hepatitis.

A Breakthrough

The discovery of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) was one of the important milestones that had raised hopes for eliminating the disease.

The efforts of the scientists, the Nobel Prize committee said, ultimately “saved millions of lives”. It is now possible to have accurate tests and new medicines for the fatal Hepatitis C and for the first time in known history, the disease is curable.

How is it treated?

Since the discovery of the virus, antiviral drugs have now become available. Tests have been developed to identify blood that has this virus. However, a vaccine for Hepatitis C has still not been developed.

Hepatitis C is the cause of death of around 400,000 people every year.

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