Home > News > Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded for discovery of Hepatitis C to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice

Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded for discovery of Hepatitis C to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice


The award is one of the most sought-after global accolades and grants entry into one of the most prestigious clubs in the world.

The Nobel Assembly said in a news release Monday that the three scientists “made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus.”

It said the trio had “made a 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.”

Globally, an estimated 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C virus infection, according to the World Health Organization. A significant number of those who are chronically infected will develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Gilbert Thompson, professor emeritus of clinical lipidology at Imperial College London, told CNN: “It’s long overdue. Hep C arguably has caused just as much, if not more deaths, than the current coronavirus pandemic. It was a major problem and this (work) was an enormous step forward.”

Secretary of the Nobel Assembly Thomas Perlmann said he had to call the winners several times before he finally reached Alter and Rice.

“I woke them up and they were very surprised, they were definitely not sitting by the phone because I called them a couple of times before without any answer,” he said after making the announcement.

“But once I reached them they were extremely surprised and really happy and speechless almost, so it was really fun to talk to them.”

The methodical studies of transfusion-associated hepatitis by US scientist Alter demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis.

Houghton — a British scientist — used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the new virus that was named Hepatitis C.

Rice, another American, provided the final evidence showing that Hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.

Alfred Nobel — the inventor of dynamite — in 1895 created a fund that would give the largest portion of his fortune to those who serve humanity. Today, the Nobels recognize outstanding achievements in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economic Sciences. Between 1901 and 2019, almost 600 awards were given.

The Nobel Assembly said that the trio who won the Medicine prize, "made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus."

Nobel’s will stated that one part of his fund would be dedicated to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine.”

The main inscription on one side of the Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, and Literature Nobel Prize medals is the same: “Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes,” loosely translated as: “And they who bettered life on earth by new found mastery.”

The Nobel Prizes for Medicine, Physics and Chemistry are the acme of scientific achievement — honoring great minds and life-changing discoveries.

The latter two will be announced Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, followed by the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, Peace on Friday and the Prize in Economic Sciences next Monday.

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