Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Nobel Committee has awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, one of the most common causes of liver cancer. The prize was given to Harvey Alter of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta in Canada, and Charles Rice of Rockefeller University in New York City.

The Hepatitis C virus is transmitted via blood and causes chronic inflammation of the liver, quietly destroying the organ over years and decades, ultimately leading to cirrhosis and cancer. Patients often end up needing a liver transplantation—or dying.

Half a century ago, doctors knew that recipients of blood transfusions were at higher risk of liver disease, but the Hepatitis B virus, discovered in the 1960s, did not explain all of the cases.

The laureates did work in the 1970s and 1980s to identify the virus, show that it was responsible for most of the unexplained cases of hepatitis in blood transfusions, and make it possible to screen blood donations for the virus.

In 1978, Alter showed that plasma from patients could cause disease when transferred to chimpanzees, indicating that it was caused by an infectious agent. Additional studies suggested it was a virus.

In 1989, Houghton, then working at the pharmaceutical company Chiron, along with colleagues cloned the virus for the first time and named it the Hepatitis C virus. The team then developed a blood test and showed it could identify samples suspected of transmitting the unexplained cases of hepatitis. This allowed blood donations around the world to be screened, which dramatically reduced the number of newly infected people. Before these discoveries, “it was like Russian roulette to receive a blood transfusion,” says Nils-Göran Larsson, a member of the Nobel Committee. (Transmission though the blood supply is now nearly eliminated.)

Rice, then working at Washington University in St. Louis, showed that the new virus was highly varied, with many clones that did not cause disease. He went on to show, however, that an active version of the virus—alone—could cause infection and liver disease.

Eventually, the trio’s discoveries also led to treatments that can now cure about 95% of hepatitis C patients. “These developments saved millions of lives worldwide,” Nobel Cmmittee member Gunilla Karlsson-Hedestam said today. The pioneering work of this year’s laureates is a landmark achievement in our ongoing battle against virus infections.”

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