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Nobel Prize for Medicine goes to Hepatitis C discovery

Virus in the liver

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Three scientists who discovered the virus Hepatitis C have won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

The winners are British scientist Michael Houghton and US researchers Harvey Alter and Charles Rice.

The Nobel Prize committee said their discoveries ultimately “saved millions of lives”.

The virus is a common cause of liver cancer and a major reason why people need a liver transplant.

In the 1960s, there was huge concern that people receiving donated blood were getting chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation) from an unknown, mysterious disease.

The Nobel Prize committee said a blood transfusion at the time was like “Russian roulette”.

Highly sensitive blood tests mean such cases have now been eliminated in many parts of the world, and effective anti-viral drugs have also been developed.

“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world,” the prize committee said.

However, the virus still infects 70 million people at year and kills around 400,000.

The mystery killer

In the 1960s, the viruses Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B had already been discovered.

But Prof Harvey Alter, while studying transfusion patients at the US National Institutes of Health, showed there was another, mystery, infection at work.

Patients were still getting sick after receiving donated blood.

He showed that giving blood from infected patients to chimpanzees led to them developing the disease.

The mysterious illness became known as “non-A, non-B” hepatitis and the hunt was now on.

Prof Michael Houghton, while at the pharmaceutical firm Chiron, managed to isolated the genetic sequence of the virus. This showed it was a type of flavivirus and it was named Hepatitis C.

And Prof Charles Rice, while at Washington University in St. Louis, applied the finishing touches. He injected part of the virus’s genetic code into the liver of chimpanzees and showed this could lead to hepatitis.

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