A British scientist is among three to have been co-awarded a Nobel prize for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.
Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, alongside British scientist Michael Houghton, will receive a gold medal and prize money of $1.1m (£780k) for their work which identified the virus in 1989.
The discovery was “a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases” according to the Nobel Prize committee, delivering its award during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health.”
Hepatitis “is insidious” said the committee “as otherwise healthy individuals can be silently infected for many years before serious complications arise”.
“Blood-borne hepatitis is associated with significant morbidity and mortality, and causes more than a million deaths per year world-wide, thus making it a global health concern on a scale comparable to HIV-infection and tuberculosis.”
The hepatitis B virus was discovered in the 1960s by Baruch Blumberg, who would himself win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1976 for this work.
But when Harvey Alter was working at the US National Institutes of Health, he was finding a large number of blood-transfusion patients were developing hepatitis which he proved conclusively wasn’t caused by the B virus.
Michael Houghton then identified the genetic sequence of the virus causing this hepatitis, which became named the hepatitis C virus. Charles Rice then proved that this virus alone could cause hepatitis in blood transfusion patients.
“Prior to their work, the discovery of the hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained.
“The discovery of hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives,” the committee said.