Discovery of Hepatitis C Wins Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine


Medgadget would like to congratulate Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice on receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in discovering the hepatitis C virus.

Hepatitis C, a virus that infects liver cells and causes inflammation, certain cancers, and lymphomas, is fairly widespread among certain groups of people, and until its discovery it was impossible to screen donated blood for its presence. People were getting infected with something that resembled hepatitis B, but screening for hepatitis B would not detect this still unknown agent.

At the National Institutes of Health, the hepatitis A virus was identified and it was also shown, though not identified, by Harvey J. Alter that another infectious agent was responsible for other cases of hepatitis. Alter also showed, that this agent was able to infect chimpanzees and that it was probably a virus as well.

This virus was eventually isolated by a team headed by Michael Houghton at a firm called Chiron Corporation, based in Emeryville, California. This team was able to identify unique cloned viral DNA fragments produced by antibodies of chimpanzees infected by the virus. These fragments were shown to come from the viral Flavivirus family and this particular virus was now known as hepatitis C.

To actually confirm that nothing else causes this type of hepatitis, it took Charles M. Rice and a group at Washington University in St. Louis. As the Nobel Committee describes, researchers identified a “previously uncharacterized region in the end of the Hepatitis C virus genome that they suspected could be important for virus replication. Rice also observed genetic variations in isolated virus samples and hypothesized that some of them might hinder viral replication. Through genetic engineering, Rice generated an RNA variant of the 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.” This confirmation of the new virus being the only cause of the disease allowed for safe blood screenings and for therapies to finally be developed. These days there are drugs available that completely cure the disease in most patients.

Here’s a video of the formal announcement of the prize:

Via the official announcement: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2020

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