Three scientists who each played a role in finding a cure for hepatitis C have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Nobel Foundation announced Monday.
Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and Briton Michael Houghton won the 2020 prize for their separate work in battling hepatitis C, a blood-borne disease that causes cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
The disease is associated with significant morbidity and mortality and causes more than 1 million deaths per year worldwide, making it a global health threat on a scale comparable to HIV infection and tuberculosis.
The prize was announced during a ceremony at the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, which awards the honor each year.
Two other types of hepatitis — A and B — had been identified earlier, but a still-unknown form had continued to affect blood transfusion patients.
In the 1970s, Alter, working at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, first showed that the condition was caused by a previously unknown, distinct virus, later named the hepatitis C virus.
Identifying the virus, however, eluded researchers for more than a decade. Houghton, then working for the Chiron Corp. in California, was able to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus in 1989, providing a key breakthrough.
With the virus identified, researchers still needed to prove that it alone was capable of causing hepatitis. Rice, a scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, provided the link in 2005 after eight years of research.
The scientists’ contributions have “essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health,” the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine said.
“Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C,” it added. “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 Institute’s two other scientific prizes — for physics and chemistry — will be announced Tuesday and Wednesday. They will be followed by the literature prize on Thursday, the peace prize on Friday and economic sciences on Oct. 12.