Three scientists who played central roles in the discovery of the hepatitis C virus have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2020.
This prize will be shared by Michael Houghton, from the United Kingdom, and United States scientists Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice, who all made notable contributions toward the discovery of the blood-borne virus that causes chronic liver problems.
Alter demonstrated in the 1970s that some people who received blood transfusions would develop cases of hepatitis that were not caused by the hepatitis A or B viruses, suggesting that another infectious agent was to blame.
In the 1980s, Houghton managed to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus, while Rice proved that the pathogen could replicate and cause infection.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 71 million people worldwide live with hepatitis C, which can cause major liver complications and, in some cases, death.
The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, which is the Stockholm-based body that oversees the awards, said the three researchers had contributed to a "landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases".
"The discovery of hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives," the assembly said in a statement. "Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health."
The assembly said that the discoveries performed by the newly minted Nobel Laureates also allowed for the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C.
"For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population," the statement said.
The award for physiology and medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes to be handed out this year, with prizes in physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics to follow during the next seven days.