Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded this morning to a trio of scientists who were recognized for their discovery of hepatitis C virus. The laureates are: Harvey Alter, an investigator at the NIH; Michael Houghton, a researcher at the University of Alberta and Charles M. Rice, a researcher at Rockefeller University, ASM member and Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.
Together, these scientists have made significant contributions to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis and helped save millions of lives. The WHO estimates that 71 million people are currently living with chronic hepatitis worldwide. If unidentified, or left untreated, hepatitis can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer.
By the 1960s, two main types of clinically significant hepatitis had been identified, hepatitis A and B, but only hepatitis B virus was known to cause blood borne infection. At the time, Dr. Alter, who was studying transfusion-associated hepatitis at the NIH, observed that a significant number of blood transfusions caused chronic hepatitis through an unknown pathogen, which he subsequently characterized as a virus. Dr. Houghton isolated the genetic sequence of that virus and named it hepatitis C virus, and Dr. Rice provided the final evidence that hepatitis C virus alone could replicate and cause disease.
Prior to Alter’s, Houghton’s and Rice’s discoveries, most blood-borne hepatitis virus cases remained unidentified, but having a recognizable virus that these infections can be attributed to has facilitated the development of effective diagnostics and therapies. Today, hepatitis C can be cured, and international efforts are underway to eradicate it from the world population completely.
Charles Rice has been an ASM member since 1983 and an Academy Fellow since 2005. He was also an editor of ASM’s Journal of Virology (JVI) from 2001-2008. All 3 scientists have been extensively published in ASM journals. ASM congratulates the recipients of this esteemed award and is proud that another of our members has been recognized in this most prestigious way.