A Nobel Prize was awarded to three scientists who were credited with the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, announced Monday, September 5.

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice, who made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of the novel Hepatitis C virus. Their achievement is lauded by the assembly as a "decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis," adding that the discovered form of the disease causes cirrhosis and liver cancer worldwide.


A Short History of Hepatitis C

The first methodical studies on identifying the disease began in the mid-1970s, with Harvey J. Alter, then Chief of the Infection Disease Section, Department of Transfusion Medicine at the United States' National Institutes of Health (NIH). He, together with his research team, was able to demonstrate that a new, unknown virus was causing chronic hepatitis. New cases of hepatitis that commonly occurred post-transfusion were not caused by Hepatitis A or B, soon giving the new virus the designation "non-A, non-B hepatitis (NANBH).

It took a decade before efforts to understand NANBH saw its next significant progress, with British scientist Michael Houghton and his colleagues Qui-Lim Choo, George Kuo, and Daniel Bradley from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He led the use of a novel, previously-untested method of isolating the genome, isolating and diagnosing what would become known as Hepatitis C.

Lastly, American virologist Charles M. Rice was recognized for providing evidence that this new virus alone causes hepatitis. He led a research team that developed the replication of this virus, leading to breakthroughs in the treatment of the disease.

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At the turn of the millennium, in 2000, Alter and Houghton were first awarded the Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research. The award recognized their "pioneering work leading to the discovery of the virus that causes hepatitis C." The screening methods that followed shortly after the discovery of the virus was credited for reducing the risk of hepatitis post-transfusion from 30 percent in the 70s to almost zero by 2000.

The Most Prestigious Award in the Sciences

The Nobel Prize is an annual awarding ceremony recognizing outstanding contributions in various fields - one for Chemistry, Physics, Economics, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace - named after the Swedish revolutionary Alfred Nobel.

For Physiology or Medicine, the awardees, or Nobel laureates, are determined by The Nobel Assembly that includes 50 professors from the Karolinska Institutet in Solna, Sweden. A single award may be shared up to three individuals, as is the case with the separate works done by Alter, Houghton, and Rice. However, it can be awarded to a single organization, despite the number of its members.

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Nobel laureates traditionally receive a gold medal, emblazoned with Nobel's likeness, a diploma citing their achievement, and a cash incentive. According to a press release from the Nobel Prize organization, the cash incentive for this year's awardees has been raised by SEK 1 million, or a million Swedish Krona. This translates to a sum for each of the 2020 laureates amounting to about $935,366.