3 Scientists Share Nobel Prize In Medicine For Discovery Of Hepatitis C Virus

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This year's Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded jointly to to three scientists for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus, a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases.

Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer.

"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 Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute said on Monday.

Their discovery also allowed 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. To achieve this goal, international efforts facilitating blood testing and making antiviral drugs available across the globe will be required.

Prior to the laureates' 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 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.

Hepatitis, or liver inflammation, is mainly caused by viral infections, although alcohol abuse, environmental toxins and autoimmune disease are also important causes.

Blood-borne hepatitis causes more than a million deaths per year world-wide, making it a global health concern on a scale comparable to HIV-infection and tuberculosis.

The methodical studies of transfusion-associated hepatitis by Harvey Alter demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis. Alter is a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Michael Houghton, who is Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta, used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the new virus that was named Hepatitis C virus.

While doing research at Washington University in St. Louis, Charles Rice provided the final evidence showing that Hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis. Since 2001 he has been Professor at the Rockefeller University, New York.

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