The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to three scientists for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus; they are Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice.

Nobel Prize in Medicine

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

The Nobel Assembly stated in a news release on October 5, with the link posted on their Twitter account, that the three scientists made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus.

According to the statement, the three 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 records of the World Health Organization. A significant number of those who are chronically infected will develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

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Gilbert Thompson, professor emeritus of clinical lipidology at Imperial College London, stated that Hepatitis C had caused just as much deaths that the current coronavirus pandemic. He added that Hep C was a major problem, and this work was an enormous step forward.

Cinderella story

The discovery of the hepatitis C virus has been described as a Cinderella story in modern medicine, which is an overlooked achievement, according to the US National Library of Medicine. 

In the 1960s, it was a great source of concern that a significant number of people receiving blood transfusions developed chronic hepatitis from a mysterious infectious agent.

Harvey J. Alter, a US scientist of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, showed that blood from these hepatitis patients could transmit the disease to chimpanzees. The mysterious illness became known as "non-A, non-B" hepatitis.

Michael Houghton, a British scientist, now working at the University of Alberta in Canada, used an untested strategy to isolate the genetic sequence of the new virus that was named hepatitis C while working at Chiron Corporations in the 1980s.

Charles Rice, another American who's based at Rockefeller University in New York City, provided the final pieces of the puzzle, showing that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.

Because of their groundbreaking discoveries, the Nobel Prize committee said that highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available, and these have essentially eliminated hepatitis being spread through blood transfusions in many parts of the world. Their research also paved the way for the rapid development of antiviral drugs to treat hepatitis C.

Dr. Claire Bayntun, a clinical consultant in global public health and director of Global Leadership Programmes at the UK's Royal Society of Medicine, stated that the disease still kills around 400,000 people every year around the world.

Dr. Bayntun said that it is a reminder that the developing understanding of the transmission of COVID-19, and the possibilities for vaccines and treatments in the future, are not on their own enough to end the pandemic that has affected several countries in the world.

The director added that in the United States, the most common route of transmission for the diseases today is through injection-drug use, according to the CDC.

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