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Trio Awarded Nobel Prize in Medicine for Discovering Hep C Virus

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The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to two Americans and a British-born scientist this morning for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus (HCV), a discovery that has “saved millions of lives.”

Harvey J. Alter, MD, with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland; British-born researcher Michael Houghton, PhD, DSc Hon, University of Alberta, in Alberta, Canada; and Charles M. Rice, PhD, with the Rockefeller University, in New York City, share the award, as announced early this morning by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute at a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

The announcement noted, “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population.”

Even with discovery of the hepatitis A (first isolated in 1979) and B viruses (discovered in 1965), most blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained. The scientists’ discovery of HCV revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and led to blood tests and medicines that “have saved millions of lives,” the committee noted.

“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,” Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the committee, said in announcing the awards, according to the Associated Press.

Their work also led to the rapid development of antiviral drugs for hepatitis C.

Gilbert Thompson, professor emeritus of clinical lipidology at Imperial College London, United Kingdom, told CNN that the award for the 1989 discovery is “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,” he said.

The antiviral drugs developed to treat HCV infection may also be effective against COVID-19, a new report suggests.

Perlmann said that he had to call the winners several times before he reached Alter and Rice, CNN reported.

“I woke them up and they were very surprised, they were definitely not sitting by the phone,” he said. “But once I reached them, they were extremely surprised and really happy and speechless almost, so it was really fun to talk to them.”

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

The prize comes with a gold medal and more than $1.1 million, which will shared among the three.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and Nurse.com and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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