The winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine are Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus. The prize is worth 10m Swedish krona (about $1,125,000), which will be shared among the winners. The virus causes liver disease, which can lead to liver cancer.
An estimated 71 million people in the world live with a chronic hepatitis C virus infection. However, identifying the existence of the virus took decades. Scientists only became aware of its existence after the discovery of Hepatitis A and B and the tests developed to recognize these pathogens in the bloodstream. At the time, the mysterious third illness was called “non-A, non-B” hepatitis.
Houghton and his two colleagues Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo finally discovered the virus in 1987 while working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron. Alter confirmed the presence of the virus in 1988 and the full discovery was announced in 1989 in the journal Science. The final piece of the puzzle came when Rice and his team demonstrated in the late 90s that this virus does indeed cause hepatitis.
“The laureate’s achievements provided the foundation that was needed to now start combating the spread of the virus.” the prize committee said in the press announcement. “Thanks to the effective blood screening programs the hepatitis C virus is now almost eliminated in many parts of the world and the development of highly effective antiviral drugs means that more than 95 percent of treated patients can be cured from the infection. These developments have saved millions of lives worldwide. Continued efforts to implement blood screening programs and treatments globally raise hopes that a hepatitis C virus can be controlled, and eventually eliminated”
This year’s prize may raise debate. In 2013, Houghton turned down the Canada Gairdner International Award, because the award didn’t honor the virus co-discoverers Choo and Kuo. In the press conference, Professor Thomas Perlmann, the secretary-general of the Nobel Assembly, stated that he was only able to share the news with Professor Alter and Rice. Whether Houghton accepts this prize or not, the debate continues if the maximum limit of three winners should continue. For years, people have been arguing how the prize should be expanded to teams since most of science is done collaboratively.