Nobel Prize in Medicine 2020: Why was the Discovery of Hepatitis C Virus so Important?

·2-min read

For their ground-breaking contributions to hepatitis study and research, two American and one Briton scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2020. The prestigious accolade commemorates the decades of work that went behind identifying the Hepatitis C Virus.

Due to the works of Harvey J Alter, Charles M Rice, and Michael Houghton, it is now possible to have accurate tests and new medicines for the fatal Hepatitis-C. The Nobel assembly claimed in a statement that for the first time in known history, the disease is curable, and we can even say that the hep-C virus would be completely eradicated from the world one day.

The Nobel award includes a sum of 10 million Swedish Kronor (approximately Rs 8,19,42,081) which will be split amongst the trio. It was Alter who initially illustrated that HCV or Hepatitis C Virus causes chronic hepatitis. He is associated with the National Institutes of Health in American and has been working on studying the disease since the 1970s.

Houghton, now working for a pharmaceutical company called Chiron, was successful in isolating the genome of the new virus called the HCV. Lastly, Rice and his group of researchers at Washington University helped cement the fact that only HCV alone could cause hepatitis. This research went on from 1986 to 2000, since then, Rice has moved onto Rockefeller University in New York.

The work spans decades of hard work of innumerable researchers, doctors, and volunteer patients who helped increase the understanding of this fatal disease.

Hepatitis family of viruses affect the liver of hosts they infect, causing inflammation or even malfunction in the vital organ. There five known hep viruses. Hepatitis A is acute, the virus generally transferred through contaminated food or water. It is very similar to jaundice in a lot of ways, it also the most easily curable out of the three hepatitis viruses. Next is Hepatitis B, which also causes liver disorders. Along with Hep A, it had been previously identified as one of the hepatitis viruses.

A large number of liver patients could still not be identified as either A or B. This is where the research on HCV becomes important. The discovery of HCV made possible the diagnosis of thousands of patients who were fated to die.

According to WHO, both B and C are blood-borne viruses, putting HCV in the same family as HIV. The infection can cause serious chronic conditions by developing cirrhosis and liver cancer. Since it’s bloodborne, it is generally transported through the blood and other bodily fluids. In the early 70s and 80s, it was mostly observed in patients post- blood transfusion.

The Nobel PR confirmed that nearly 71 people are affected by the disease globally. Before the contributions of this year’s winners, their treatment or even diagnosis wouldn’t have been possible.