A trio of scientists who identified and characterized the virus responsible for many cases of hepatitis and liver disease — hepatitis C — are the recipients of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine.
The winners are Harvey Alter, at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland; Michael Houghton, now at the University of Alberta in Canada, and Charles Rice, now at Rockefeller University in New York City. Their work on hepatitis C virus paved the way for effective treatments against the infection that are now available.
The World Health Organization estimates that 71 million people worldwide are chronically infected with hepatitis C, which causes nearly 400,000 deaths per year, mostly from cirrhosis and liver cancer.
In the 1970s, Alter studied the transmission of hepatitis, or liver inflammation, as a result of blood transfusions. Earlier work had identified hepatitis A and B viruses, but Alter showed that a third, bloodborne viral pathogen could transmit the disease to chimpanzees.
Houghton, then working at Chiron Corporation in Emeryville, California, and his colleagues identified the virus based on genetic material from infected chimpanzees, showing that it was a new kind of RNA virus that belonged to the Flavivirus family. They named it hepatitis C virus.
A team led by Rice, then based at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, used genetic engineering techniques to characterize a portion of the hepatitis C genome responsible for viral replication, demonstrating its role in causing liver disease.
In the past decade, harsh and poorly effective treatments for the virus have been replaced by effective drugs that directly block the virus. These medicines have the potential to cure the vast majority of hepatitis C infections, but their high cost has limited access in many low- and middle-income countries.