Discovery of Hepatitis C By 2020 Medicine Nobel Laureates

Discovery of Hepatitis C By 2020 Medicine Nobel Laureates

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2020 has been awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice, for their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus. What is the hepatitis family of viruses? What is the significance of this finding?

Crux of the Matter

What Is The Hepatitis Viral?
It is an inflammation of the liver. The condition can progress to fibrosis, cirrhosis, or liver cancer. It is characterised by yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes.

How Many Types Of Hepatitis Virus Exist?
FiveHepatitis A and E are caused by intaking contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B, C and D occur as a result of bodily contact with infected fluids via invasive medical equipments like syringes.

How Fatal Is Hepatitis C?
WHO estimates there are more than 70 million cases of hepatitis worldwide and 400,000 deaths each year. Hepatitis C causes spider-like blood vessels on the skin (spider angiomas), fatigue, and bloating.

How Did They Discover Hepatitis C?
Harvey J. Alter, one of the laureates, was studying hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions. Tests for Hepatitis A and B infections showed that they were not the cause and the mysterious new illness was termed “non-A, non-B” hepatitis.

The new virus couldn’t be isolated for several years using traditional techniques for virus isolation. So Michael Houghton and his team created a collection of DNA fragments from the blood of an infected chimpanzee and found a novel RNA virus belonging to the Flavivirus family and named it Hepatitis C.

What About Charles Rice?
Charles used genetic engineering to understand if this new virus alone could cause hepatitis. He generated an RNA variant of the virus and injected it into the liver of chimpanzees. The virus was then detected in the blood and the chimpanzees exhibited changes similar to those seen in humans infected with the disease.

Is Hepatitis C Curable?
Yes, as per WHO, 95% cases of Hepatitis C are curable, if treated using direct acting antiviral (DAA) tablets. The doctor assesses the patient’s liver, to check the severity of damage , either with a blood test or a fibroscan and assigns the dosage of DAA accordingly. At the end of the treatment, a blood test is done to see if the virus has been cleared and a second blood test 12 or 24 weeks, after the treatment has stopped.

Why Is The Award Important?
The Nobel Committee chose to recognize the work done by virologists, whose discoveries led to the development of antiviral treatments. This step would help boost the morale of researchers working in the Covid-19 pandemic caused by SARS-COV-2 virus.

What Would Be The Next Step?
A world with access to more affordable testing methods and viral therapeutics, that can help improve the quality of human life and reduce deaths.

  • Boceprevir is a protease inhibitor used to treat hepatitis caused by hepatitis C virus genotype 1. It was initially developed by Schering-Plough, then by Merck after it acquired Schering in 2009. It was approved by the FDA in May 2011.
  • Emil von Behring was a German physiologist who received the 1901 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the first one awarded in that field, for his discovery of a diphtheria antitoxin. He was widely known as a “saviour of children,” as diphtheria used to be a major cause of child death. 
  • The first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was Gerty Cori, who received it in 1947 for her role in elucidating the metabolism of glucose, important in many aspects of medicine, including treatment of diabetes.