05 October 2020

For hepatitis C

The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus

Polina Loseva, N+1 

The laureates of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2020 were (in the picture – from left to right) Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles Rice.


Thus, the Nobel Committee noted their contribution to the study of the hepatitis C virus. The ceremony of announcing the winners can be followed live on the website The Nobel Committee. You can read more about their research in the press release.

Viral hepatitis exists in two main forms. One of them is caused by the hepatitis A virus, which is transmitted mainly through food and water. The other, much more serious, is caused by two other viruses – hepatitis B and C, which are transmitted together with blood. For the discovery of the hepatitis B virus, the Nobel Committee has already awarded the prize to the American physiologist Baruch Bloomberg in 1976.

Harvey Alter, who now heads the Department of Infectious Diseases at the US National Institutes of Health, then studied hepatitis, which occurred in patients after blood transfusion. He noticed that there were no fewer cases of hepatitis even after tests for hepatitis A and B viruses appeared.

At that time, the Briton Michael Houghton, who now heads the Institute of Applied Virology La Ka Shing studied at the Canadian University of Alberta, worked for the pharmaceutical company Chiron. He started isolating an unknown virus. To do this, he had to collect all the DNA from the chimpanzee's blood and find out which of its fragments antibodies from the blood of people with unknown hepatitis react to. So he managed to figure out the culprit of the disease – an RNA virus from the Flavivirus family, the hepatitis C virus.

Finally, it remained to prove that this virus causes hepatitis in patients after blood transfusion. And here Charles Rice from Washington University in St. Louis (he is now a professor of virology at Rockefeller University). He isolated a section of the genome that seemed to him more important for the reproduction of the hepatitis C virus than others. Having collected an experimental virus that contained these critical areas, but did not carry inactivating mutations, Rice injected it into the liver of chimpanzees – and they developed all the symptoms characteristic of hepatitis.

According to WHO, today 71 million people live with chronic hepatitis C. This disease is dangerous not only because it causes inflammation and disrupts liver function, but also because it is the main cause of liver cancer. In 2016, almost 400 thousand people died from the effects of hepatitis C virus infection (mainly from cirrhosis or liver cancer). However, antiviral drugs, if taken on time, could prevent 95 percent of these deaths. And their discovery became possible thanks to the works of this year's Nobel laureates. Their research led to the fact that the hepatitis virus C has not only ceased to be the unknown culprit of a dangerous disease, but is also – according to the Nobel Committee – on the right (though possibly long) path to destruction.

The path of the laureates to their prize was just as long. Alter made the first discovery in this area back in 1975, then in 1989 Houghton managed to clone the virus, and in 1997 Rice proved its direct pathogenicity. It took the Nobel Committee more than 20 years to assess the significance of their work.

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