On 5 October, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice for their contributions to the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.
A multitude of viruses that cause liver damage and inflammation are called “hepatitis” viruses. Hepatitis C and B viruses cause most of the global hepatitis burden, with an estimated 257 million hepatitis B and 71 million hepatitis C patients worldwide. Causing over 1.4 million deaths a year, hepatitis overtook malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS as a global cause of death in 2016. Hepatitis B and C are both blood-borne and can become chronic infections if the body’s immune system is unable to control the virus. For hepatitis C, almost one in every five patients will develop inflammation that can cause progressive liver damage and ultimately cancer.
The three scientists honored with the Nobel Prize have contributed various puzzle pieces to the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. This is not the first time that hepatitis research was lauded with a Nobel Prize: Baruch S. Blumberg shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his 1967 discovery of the hepatitis B virus. At the time, doctors knew that recipients of blood transfusions were much more likely to develop liver disease. By screening for hepatitis B in blood products, they were able to reduce the occurrence of liver disease, but many cases remained. In 1978, Harvey J. Alter demonstrated that another unknown virus caused chronic hepatitis by methodically studying transfusion-associated hepatitis. In the 1980s, Michael Houghton isolated the genome of this novel virus that we now call Hepatitis C virus. A decade later, studies led by Charles M. Rice provided definitive evidence that infection by the Hepatitis C virus was responsible for causing hepatitis. Their discoveries aided future scientific research that led to a better understanding of the causes of hepatitis C infections in society and the development of diagnostic tests and treatments that saved millions of lives across the globe.
For us at HepaHealth, it has been especially emotional to read the responses of hepatitis C patients to the Nobel Committee’s announcement. The discovery of the hepatitis C virus and its treatment is an incredible success story for science, but we want to center especially what this means to patients. One hepatitis C patient took part in three different clinical trials aimed at discovering a cure for HCV, with the first trial starting in 1998. Unfortunately, the treatments did not work for him, and side effects of the drugs caused serious health issues. Nearly twenty years later, he started the third experimental treatment and after three months he was declared hepatitis free.
In 2020, our world is struggling to adapt to the health threat caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19. This moment in time makes it especially important to spread awareness about hepatitis, which has been wreaking havoc as a pandemic for decades. The path from discovering the hepatitis C virus to a cure is a remarkable and rapid success story. Yet although the hepatitis B virus was discovered almost a decade earlier, research advances have still not produced a curative treatment for hepatitis B. More importantly, new infections of hepatitis are still rising across the globe and specifically in developing countries due to lack of awareness of hepatitis viruses as a health threat and lack of access to effective healthcare to prevent, detect, and treat hepatitis infections.
This brief history shows us that science is not enough: discoveries need to be translated into medical applications, which in turn can only be effective if they are accessible for all. But today, we celebrate the fantastic work of hepatitis researchers across the globe, symbolized by the Nobel Prize for Alter, Houghton, and Rice – and we renew our commitment at HepaHealth to contribute to the global goal of hepatitis eradication.