3 win Nobel medicine prize for finding hepatitis C virus | Health and Science

STOCKHOLM – Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for discovering the liver-ravaging…

3 win Nobel medicine prize for finding hepatitis C virus | Health and Science

STOCKHOLM – Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough that led to cures for the deadly disease and tests to keep the scourge out of the blood supply.

Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton were honored for their work over several decades on an illness that still plagues more than 70 million worldwide and kills over 400,000 each year.

“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world,” the Nobel Committee said in announcing the prize in Stockholm.

The challenge now is to make these still-expensive drugs more widely available and to stem the spread of the disease among drug users, whose sharing of needles has led to spikes in cases.

“What we need is the political will to eradicate it” and to make the drugs affordable enough to do it, Alter said.

Scientists had long known of the hepatitis A and B viruses, spread largely through contaminated food or water and blood, respectively, but were “toiling in the wilderness” to try to explain many other cases of liver disease until the blood-borne hepatitis C virus was identified in 1989, said Dr. Raymond Chung, liver disease chief at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Now, it’s the only chronic viral infection that can be cured in almost all cases within a few months, using one of roughly half a dozen drugs, Chung said. Without such treatment, the virus can lead to permanent scarring of the liver, liver cancer or the need for a transplant.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Rice said he is most proud that the group’s work quickly led to a test to screen donors and make the blood supply safer.

“We take it for granted that if you get a transfusion, you’re not going to get sick from that transfusion. That was not the case before but is certainly the case now,” Rice said.

Dr. Jesse Goodman, a former blood safety expert at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now at Georgetown University, said that before testing was available, about 1 in 10 blood transfusions carried the risk of passing the virus. “Now it’s 1 in a million,” Goodman said.

Alter and Rice are now working on coronavirus research, while Houghton is trying to develop a hepatitis C vaccine. Houghton said manufacturing delays have been a problem but he expects clinical trials to begin next year in many countries, including the U.S., Germany and Italy.

“To control an epidemic, you need to have a vaccine,” Houghton said.