The discoverers of the hepatitis C virus, awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine

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The Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

These three scientists have made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world, thanks to their identification of the hepatitis C virus.

Specifically, the methodical studies of transfusion-associated hepatitis by Harvey J. Alter demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis; while Michael Houghton used an unproven strategy to isolate the genome of the new virus that was named hepatitis C virus; and Charles M. Rice, provided the final evidence showing that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.

Harvey J. Alter was born in 1935 in New York, received his medical degree from the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and trained in internal medicine at Strong Memorial Hospital and the University Hospitals of Seattle. In 1961, he joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a clinical associate, and spent several years at Georgetown University before returning to the NIH in 1969 to join the Department of Transfusion Medicine at the Clinical Center as a principal investigator.

For his part, Houghton was born in the United Kingdom. He received his Ph.D. in 1977 from King’s College London. He joined GD Searle & Company before moving to Chiron Corporation, Emeryville, California in 1982, and in 2010 he went to the University of Alberta. He is currently the Canadian Research Chair of Excellence in Virology and the Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta, where he is also Director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Applied Virology.

Charles M. Rice was born in 1952 in Sacramento. He received his Ph.D. in 1981 from the California Institute of Technology, where he also trained as a postdoctoral fellow between 1981-1985. He established his research group at Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis in 1986 and became a full professor in 1995. Since 2001 he has been a professor at Rockefeller University, New York. During 2001-2018 he was Scientific and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C at Rockefeller University, where he remains active.

Prior to the work of these three researchers, the discovery of the hepatitis A and B viruses had been a critical step forward, but most cases of blood-borne hepatitis remained unexplained. The discovery of the hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new drugs that have saved millions of lives.

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