The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice for the discovery of hepatitis C virus.
Alter studied the transmission of hepatitis as a result of blood transfusions and showed the existence of a third, blood-borne viral pathogen –other than HAV and HBV.
Houghton and his colleagues identified the new kind of RNA virus that belonged to the Flavivirus family on the basis of genetic material from infected chimpanzees and named it hepatitis C virus.
A team led by Rice characterised a portion of the hepatitis C genome responsible for viral replication using genetic-engineering techniques demonstrating its role in causing liver disease.
This pioneering work has paved the way for the development of screening methods that have dramatically reduced the risk of acquiring hepatitis from contaminated blood and has led to the development of effective antiviral drugs.
The harsh and poorly effective treatments of yesteryears for the infection have been replaced by drugs that directly block the virus.
HCV induced hepatitis is now almost a curable disease and the lesions associated with infection are often reversible. Clinical studies have shown that short-term anti-viral treatment cures more than 95% of the patients, including advanced cases who failed to respond to previous therapeutic modalities.
71 million people worldwide are chronically infected with hepatitis C, which causes nearly 400,000 deaths per year, mostly from cirrhosis and liver cancer, according to WHO. The global agency has set a goal of eradicating HCV by 2030.