Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles Rice on Monday were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus, which the Nobel Assembly said has "made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives."
A 'holy grail' in medicine
The work of Alter, a medical researcher at NIH; Houghton, a professor of virology at the University of Alberta and director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute; and Rice, a professor at Rockefeller University, has its roots in work from the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1967, American scientist Baruch Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B virus, which is transmitted through blood—unlike the previously discovered hepatitis A virus, which is transmitted through food or water, the Associated Press reports.
The discovery earned Blumberg the Nobel Prize in 1976, but even so, it left many cases of chronic hepatitis unexplained.
"After hepatitis A and B were discovered in the 1970s, it was clear there was still at least one other virus or more that were causing liver damage," Will Irving, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, explained.
As such, discovering the hepatitis C virus became a "holy grail" in medicine, he added.
"We knew there was a virus in the blood supply, because when people had blood transfusions they would get liver damage," Irving said. "It was recognized as a risk but there was nothing we could do. We didn't know what the virus was and we couldn't test for it."
As Nobel Committee member Gunilla Karlsson-Hedestam explained, "The breakthrough came in 1989, when Michael Houghton and colleagues working at Chiron Corporation used a combination of molecular biology and immunology-based techniques to clone the virus."
Why the discovery of hepatitis C matters
Nils-Goran Larsson, a member of the Nobel Committee, said, "Before the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, it was a bit like Russian roulette to get a blood transfusion."
Graham Foster, a professor of hepatology at Queen Mary University, said millions of people have been saved from hepatitis as a result of the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.
"This discovery allowed for safe blood transfusion and it allowed the rapid development of treatments for hepatitis C," Foster said. "We are now in a position where we have drugs that are 96% effective if you take a pill for eight weeks."
According to estimates from the World Health Organization, hepatitis C still causes more than 70 million cases and 400,000 deaths each year.
However, because of Alter, Houghton, and Rice's discoveries, "the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population," the Nobel Committee said (Wu/Victor, New York Times, 10/5; Keyton/Jordans, Associated Press, 10/5).