Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, together with Briton Michael Houghton, won the Nobel Medicine (or Physiology) Prize today for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, the Nobel jury said.
The Nobel committee honoured the three for their “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,” the jury said.
The Nobel Assembly announced the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population,” the committee said in a statement.
Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel committee, described the hepatitis C virus as a “plague” that affected millions. At a press briefing, he told reporters he had told Alter and Rice the news by telephone. “I woke them up and they were very surprised,” he said. He did not immediately reach Houghton.
The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 70 million people are infected with hepatitis C, with 4 lakh dying each year from related conditions such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The physics prize will be announced tomorrow and the prize for chemistry on Wednesday, both from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine winners
Alter, an American, is a medical researcher for the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
Houghton, born in Britain, is the Li Ka Shing professor of virology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is also director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the university.
Rice, born in Sacramento, is a professor at Rockefeller University in New York. From 2001 to 2018, he was the scientific and executive director at the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C at the university.
In the words of the Nobel committee, “Liver inflammation, or hepatitis, a combination of the Greek words for liver and inflammation, is mainly caused by viral infections, although alcohol abuse, environmental toxins and autoimmune disease are also important causes. In the 1940s, it became clear that there are two main types of infectious hepatitis. The first, named hepatitis A, is transmitted by polluted water or food and generally has a little long-term impact on the patient. The second type is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids and represents a much more serious threat since it can lead to a chronic condition, with the development of cirrhosis and liver cancer. This form of hepatitis is insidious, as otherwise healthy individuals can be silently infected for many years before serious complications arise. Blood-borne hepatitis is associated with significant morbidity and mortality and causes more than a million deaths per year worldwide, thus making it a global health concern on a scale comparable to HIV-infection and tuberculosis.”