The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was on Monday awarded jointly to Americans Harvey J Alter and Charles Rice along with Briton Michael Houghton for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus, the jury said.

In its summary to the awarding of the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Prize committee said: “Prior to their work, the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained. 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 that Harvey J Alter demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis. Michael Houghton, working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron, isolated the genetic sequence of the virus. But scientists had to investigate if the cloned virus was able to replicate and cause disease.

“Charles M Rice, a researcher at Washington University in St Louis, along with other groups working with RNA viruses, noted a previously uncharacterised region in the end of the Hepatitis C virus genome that they suspected could be important for virus replication. Through genetic engineering, Rice generated an RNA variant of Hepatitis C virus that included the newly defined region of the viral genome and was devoid of the inactivating genetic variations. When this RNA was injected into the liver of chimpanzees, virus was detected in the blood and pathological changes resembling those seen in humans with the chronic disease were observed.”

— The Nobel Prize Committee on proof that Hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.

The committee further said that the discovery of the virus was a “landmark achievement” in the battle against viral diseases. “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 press release said.

It added that due to the discovery of the virus, the disease could now be cured and has also given hope that Hepatitis C can be eradicated from the world.

The World Health Organization estimated that there are more than 70 million or 700 lakh cases of the virus around the globe and causes over 4 lakh deaths every year, according to AP.

Nobel Committee member Patrick Ernfors compared the year’s prize and the rush among scientists to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. “The first thing you need to do is to identify the causing virus,” he told reporters. “And once that has been done, that is in itself the starting point for [the] development of drugs to treat the disease and also to develop vaccines against the disorder.” Ernfors added that the actual discovery of the virus was a critical moment in itself.

The Nobel award is accompanied by a gold medal and prize of 10 million Swedish kronor [over Rs 8.22 crore]. Five other Nobel awards for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics will follow Monday’s award in medicine. The event will run through October 12.

Winners of Nobel Prize in Medicine

Alter, an American, is a senior investigator at the Clinical Center’s Department of Transfusion Medicine of the US’ National Institutes of Health. He got his medical degree at the University of Rochester Medical School and received his training in internal medicine at the Strong Memorial Hospital and the University Hospitals of Seattle.

Rice, also an American, is a professor at the Rockefeller University, New York, since 2001. He was the scientific and executive director of the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C at the Rockefeller University from 2001-’08.

Houghton, born in the United Kingdom, is currently a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology. He is also the Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta.