Hepatitis C virus discovery helps three scientists win 2020 Medicine Nobel Prize

The virus was identified in 1982 and was named Hepatitis C. Image: IE

Hepatitis C discoverers American scientists Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, and Michael Houghton of the UK have received a Nobel prize this year for their contribution in the fields of Physiology or Medicine. It is their work that has made blood transfusion safer for everyone. They discovered the new virus that caused many diseases like chronic hepatitis cases, or cases of serious liver inflammation. It is to note that patients with inflammation in the liver need blood transfusion. The virus responsible for these problems has been identified as Hepatitis C virus. The discovery and identification of this virus was done in the 1970s and 1980s, and since then, a cure has been found for the disease. For Hepatitis C infections, effective antiviral drugs have been made and are widely available. Apart from the drugs, tests to identify the virus have been developed that will ensure that infected blood is not given to any patient.

Notably, the World Health Organization has stated that there are still about 71 million people (6 -11 million of them in India) who are suffering from chronic infection caused by Hepatitis C virus. The virus is also a major cause of liver cancer. According to the organisation, in 2016, this viral infection resulted in the death of around 400,000 people across the world. However, there is no vaccine that has been developed for the disease.

Before the third Hepatitis virus was found, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B were known to humans for causing liver related problems. In the 1960s, Alter along with his colleagues started studying cases where Hepatitis was caused after blood transfusion. The study showed some unidentified characteristics of the virus which remained unknown. After 10 years, the identity of the virus was not established. Later in 1982, Houghton studied the viral strains after screening over a million DNA sequences. The virus was identified in 1982 and was named Hepatitis C. In 1997, Rice conducted his study on this virus and concluded that this virus was the cause of chronic hepatitis in humans, a report by The IE said.

The report citing the Nobel Prize website said Hepatitis C virus (HCV) discovery has been one of the important milestones when the improvement in public health is concerned and there is a hope that the disease can be eliminated. While the antiviral drugs have been made for this problem, vaccine development has been a hurdle as the virus is very fast-changing, the report noted.

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