Medicine Nobel Prize goes to Hep-C researchers

By Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Ph.D.
Fellow in Science and Technology Policy a

On October 5, 2020, the Nobel committee announced three winners for this year’s prize in medicine: Harvey Alter (National Institutes of Health), Michael Houghton (University of Alberta) and Charles Rice (Rockefeller University). The trio was awarded the prize for discovering the virus that causes hepatitis C.  This research enabled scientists to understand as well as test for and treat the virus, which causes chronic liver and liver cancer. Prior to their discoveries and wide-scale testing for hepatitis C, approximately half a million people annually would die from the diseases associated with the virus.

Science is often incremental, building off of previous work from others. The story of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine involves three groups working independently, building off of each other’s work to improve our understanding of the virus that causes hepatitis C. Alter studied the occurrence of hepatitis in patients who received blood transfusions to uncover the presence of a third type hepatitis (different from hepatitis A and B).  Houghton identified and isolated the virus responsible for the disease, a novel RNA virus in the flavivirus family now known as the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Rice’s research into the HCV genome discovered a region of the virus genome that was important in virus replication. 

This year’s prize highlights the collaborative nature of science. Each group worked on an aspect that was vital to the others. Without Alter’s work definitely proving that there was a third type of hepatitis, Houghton might not have identified HCV, the viral cause. Without the HCV discovered by Houghton, Rice would not have determined its mechanism for replication. Without the work of these researchers, tests for the virus in donated blood would not exist, leaving millions of blood transfusion recipients at risk. Furthermore, it is unlikely that we would have the hepatitis C treatment. 

Similar to the incremental discoveries that will help us understand and fight the SARS-Cov2 that causes Covid-19, the Nobel winners highlight that all scientific research is a collaborative endeavor, even if only a select few are recognized as the winners.