Three scientists, one from Britian and two from the United States, have received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Psychology for their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.
Michael Houghton, Harvey Alter and Charles Rice were announced the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize at a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden last week. According to the news release, these three scientists “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.” Hepatitis C is typically transmitted through shared or reused needles and syringes, infected blood transfusions and sexual practices that lead to blood exposure. Many of those infected aren’t aware that they are infected with it; in most low-income countries, most can’t even afford to be tested for it. This unknown exposure can lead to further transmission of the virus, and liver cancer, later in life.
The discovery of this virus means that for the first time in history, it can be cured, which will save millions of lives, according to the Nobel Prize committee.
In the 1960s, Hepatitis C was an unknown killer, leaving many patients mysteriously infected with chronic hepatitis after blood transfusions that contained an unknown infecting agent. After decades of trial and error, Houghton, Alter and Rice made the discovery of Hepatitis C. Because of this discovery made by the three scientists, the Nobel committee has stated that blood tests for the virus are now available and have essentially eliminated the transmission of the virus through blood transfusions.
About 71 million people worldwide live with the virus, and the Nobel committee has stated that it has killed about as many or more people than the COVID-19 pandemic has, and it has been plaguing scientists and all people across the world for decades.
“For the longest time, we had nothing to treat this virus with,” said Dr. Guadalupe Garcia Tsao in an interview with the New York Times. “For most of my career, it was the bane of my existence. But from the moment they made these discoveries, the numbers of sick people went down dramatically.”
One of the recipients of the award, Dr. Alger from the United States, is hopeful for the future with this discovery of Hepatitis C. He believes that with increased testing, the world can “eradicate this disease over the next decades, even in the absence of a vaccine,” he said.
Students at Alma College also felt excited and hopeful about this discovery and the probability of how many people these scientists have helped and will help.
“I think it’s amazing,” said Racheal VanLoo (‘24). “I think they deserve the award for all their accomplishments. Discovering a virus is just as important as curing it because they have to know what they’re fighting off.”
“I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Rachael Dahl (‘24). “Hopefully a vaccine will come soon and help all these people that have been suffering for so long.”
The process in which the virus was recorded, and then many years later, discovered, seems to mirror the COVID-19 pandemic currently plaguing the U.S. “The nature of biological research doesn’t change much simply because the world is attaching much greater importance to it,” said biology researcher John Timmer in an article for ARS Technica. Timmer believes that a vaccine and eventual cure to the coronavirus is on its way but will also take lots of time to comprehend and understand what tools are needed to fight it, just as the Hepatitis C virus did.
“With the state of the world right now, I think all of us are looking for good news,” said Dahl. Knowing that millions of lives will be saved because of this is the exact kind of thing we need right now.”