News24.com | US-British trio win Nobel Medicine Prize for Hepatitis C discovery thumbnail

News24.com | US-British trio win Nobel Medicine Prize for Hepatitis C discovery

A bust of Alfred Nobel is pictured prior to the announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on 5 October 2020.

A bust of Alfred Nobel is pictured prior to the announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on 5 October 2020.

PHOTO: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

  • Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice together
    with Briton Michael Houghton have won the Nobel Medicine Prize.
  • Their work involved breakthroughs in the discovery
    of the Hepatitis C virus, saving millions of lives.
  • The WHO estimates there to be around 70 million
    Hepatitis C infections globally, causing around 400 000 deaths each year.

Stockholm – Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice
together with Briton Michael Houghton won the Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for
the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, the Nobel jury said.

The three were honoured 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 World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates there
to be around 70 million Hepatitis C infections globally, causing around 400 000
deaths each year.

Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood
tests for the virus are now available and these have “essentially
eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly
improving global health”, the Nobel committee said.

Their discovery also allowed the rapid development
of antiviral drugs directed at Hepatitis C.

The jury said:

For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population.

Prior to the trio’s work, the discovery of the
Hepatitis A and B viruses had seen critical steps forward, but the majority of
blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained.

‘Saved millions of lives’

“The discovery of Hepatitis C virus revealed
the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood
tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives,” the jury said.

Alter was credited for his pioneering work studying
the occurrence of hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions,
determining that their illness was neither Hepatitis A or B.

Houghton built on Alter’s work to isolate the
genetic sequence of the new virus.

Rice subsequently completed the puzzle by using
genetic engineering to prove that it was the new strain alone – Hepatitis C – that
was causing patients to get sick.

The trio will share the Nobel prize sum of 10
million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million).

They would normally receive their prize from King
Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December, the
anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes
in his last will and testament.

But the in-person ceremony has been cancelled this
year due to the coronavirus pandemic, replaced with a televised ceremony
showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

Pandemic effect on prizes

The award for work on a virus comes as the world
battles the new coronavirus pandemic, which has put the global spotlight on
science and research.

“The pandemic is a big crisis for mankind, but
it illustrates how important science is,” Nobel Foundation head Lars
Heikensten said.

However, no prizes were expected to be awarded this
year for work directly linked to the new coronavirus, as Nobel prize-winning
research usually takes many years to be verified.

The prize-awarding committees are “not in any
way influenced by what is happening in the world at the time,” Erling
Norrby, the former permanent secretary of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences,
which awards the science prizes, told AFP.

“It takes time before a prize can mature, I
would say at least 10 years before you can fully understand the impact” of
a discovery, Norrby, himself a virologist, said.

Shrouded in secrecy

The work of the various prize committees is
shrouded in secrecy and the names of the nominees are not disclosed for 50
years, leading to rampant speculation.

The winners of this year’s physics prize will be
revealed on Tuesday, with astrophysicists Shep Doeleman of the US and Germany’s
Heino Falcke seen as possible winners for work that led to the first directly
observed image of a black hole in April 2019.

American mathematician Peter Shor, who paved the
way for today’s research on quantum computers, or France’s Alain Aspect, for
his work on quantum entanglement, have also been mentioned in Swedish media.

The chemistry prize announcement will follow on
Wednesday, followed by the literature prize on Thursday.

Speculation ahead of Friday’s peace prize has
meanwhile focused on press freedom groups, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and
other climate activists, or several UN organisations.

The economics prize will wrap up the Nobel prize
season on Monday, 12 October.

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