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3 Scientists Win Nobel Prize For Hepatitis C Virus Discovery

Three scientists Monday won the 2020 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering the hepatitis C virus, which led to the development of a test to prevent the spread of the virus and drugs that have saved millions of lives, the Nobel Assembly said.

Harvey Alter of the National Institutes of Health; Michael Houghton, who is now at the University of Alberta in Canada; and Charles Rice, who is now at Rockefeller University in New York, will share the 10 million Swedish krona ($1.1 million) prize.

Hepatitis C causes serious liver disease, which can be fatal. The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids, including blood. The discovery led to a test for the virus, which is now widely used to protect people from becoming infected through blood transfusions. The discovery also led to antiviral drugs to treat the infection.

"For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population," the Nobel Committee said in a statement.

As is customary, the announcement was made at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The Nobels in physics, chemistry, literature and peace will be awarded this week, and the prize in economics will awarded next Monday.

Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to 219 scientists, including 12 women. The youngest laureate was 32 years old; the oldest 87.

The World Health Organization estimates that 71 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis C, which can lead to liver cancer and cirrhosis. There are approximately 400,000 deaths annually from the disease, according to WHO.

In the U.S., there are more than 50,000 cases of hepatitis C each year, a rate that continues to rise as the opioid epidemic endures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the drugs for hepatitis C are effective, their high cost — at tens of thousands of dollars per course of treatment — has limited their use both in the U.S. and in the developing world. The price has come down as more drugs are developed, but cost remains a significant barrier to many people with the disease. Untreated, the virus continues to spread through drug use and sexual activity.

Alter's studies at NIH of transfusion-associated hepatitis "demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis," according to the Nobel Assembly. Houghton used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the new virus. He did his work at the Chiron Corp. in Emeryville, Calif. Rice, working at Washington University in St. Louis, provided the final evidence showing that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.

"This has been a virus that has been a plague affecting millions of people, and still is unfortunately," Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Assembly, said during an interview after the announcement.

Houghton, who is in his 60s, was born in the United Kingdom. Alter was born in 1935 and Rice in 1952, both in the United States.

"Prior to their work, the discovery of the hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained," the assembly says.

"The discovery of the 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," according to the announcement.

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Corrected: October 7, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said that Hepatitis C is transmitted through contaminated water. It is not transmitted through water, but through bodily fluids, including blood.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
Mark Katkov