Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Three Scientists Who Discovered Hepatitis C

The contributions of these Nobel laureates helped identify, test, and treat hepatitis C

Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors sits in front of a screen displaying the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, (L-R) American Harvey Alter, Briton Michael Houghton and American Charles Rice, during a press conference
The discoveries of these three Nobel laureates “saved millions of lives worldwide,” one Nobel committee member said. Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

This morning, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute in Sweden awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to three researchers for discovering the hepatitis C virus. The trio’s decisive contributions led to innovations in testing and treatment, saving the lives of millions across the globe.

The joint prize is split among three virologists: Harvey Alter of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH); Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta, Edmonton in Canada; and Charles Rice of Rockefeller University in New York. Their life-saving research has spanned more than 30 years and ultimately led to the development of tests, treatments, and cures.

“The Nobel Laureates’ discovery of hepatitis C virus is a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases,” the Nobel Assembly says in a press release. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population.”

An estimated 71 million people currently live with chronic hepatitis C, according to the World Health Organization. Most patients are able to recover from the infection, but in chronic cases, hepatitis C slowly corrodes the liver over years or decades. It ultimately results in potentially fatal cirrhosis or liver cancer, and patients often end up requiring a liver transplant.

There are two main forms of hepatitis: hepatitis A, which is transmitted through contaminated food or water, and hepatitis B and C, which are both “insidious” blood-borne pathogens, says the Nobel Committee. Up until the 1960s, scientists were struggling to contain the transmission of these mysterious, deadly diseases, reports Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post. Some questions were answered in 1967 when Baruch Blumberg discovered hepatitis B, which earned him a Nobel Prize. Despite new tools to screen for hepatitis B, doctors were still finding that many patients who received blood transfusions were still contracting chronic liver diseases.

By the mid-1970s, scientists had already identified hepatitis A and B and developed blood tests to screen for them. Alter and his team of researchers were studying hepatitis in blood transfusion recipients when they realized that not all the cases were a result of those two viruses—there had to be another explanation for the remaining, mysterious cases. They named it “non-A, non-B” hepatitis and later suggested that it was a virus.

By that point, the race was on to identify this new pathogen. A decade slipped by without any big answers until Houghton, who worked at the pharmaceutical firm Chiron at the time, and his team isolated the virus’ genetic sequence and cloned it. They officially named it the hepatitis C virus and developed a blood test for it, allowing blood donations to be screened before transfusions and drastically reducing the number of new cases. Now, transmission via blood transfusion is almost entirely eliminated.

However, their discovery prompted a new question: Can this virus cause hepatitis C on its own? In 1997, Rice and his team identified the region of the virus’ genome that was responsible for replication. They found that the virus was highly variable, and some of those variants couldn’t cause disease—but an active version of the virus could act alone in causing a chronic infection.

The discoveries of these three Nobel laureates “saved millions of lives worldwide,” Nobel Committee member Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam tells Gretchen Vogel of Science magazine. “The pioneering work of this year's laureates is a landmark achievement in our ongoing battle against virus infections,” she says.

The Nobel Committee will continue awarding prizes in physics, chemistry, literature, and economic sciences this week.