How really do you actually win a Nobel prize in medicine or physiology?
You could discover a virus, describe the disease it causes and voila! You have the Nobel Prize medal hanging on your neck. But you may have to wait for 31 years to receive the recognition.
This is the story of the two American scientists Harvey J Alter, Charles M Rice and the British scientist Michael Houghton. The three were awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine or Physiology on October 5th, 2020 for their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.
The identification of new viruses or unexplained sources of infection is critical to tackling diseases. Their work was recognized by the most prestigious award in science as it helped explain a major source of blood-borne hepatitis that could not be explained by the hepatitis A and B viruses’ infection
The discovery journey:
Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. It is mainly caused by viruses that infect the liver cells (hepatocytes), but can also be caused by alcohol abuse, toxins and autoimmune liver disease.
The viruses causing hepatitis were discovered to be transmitted either through polluted water and food or through blood and bodily fluids.
Hepatitis A was described as the virus transmitted through water and food, and it does not have a long-term effect on an individual. Blood-borne hepatitis was, however, identified as a cause of long-term infection and a cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Hepatitis B was identified in 1967 as a cause of blood-borne hepatitis and was applauded as a step in the right direction. The discoverer also won a Nobel Prize in 1976. Despite the identification of Hepatitis B, scientists continued to see cases of blood-borne hepatitis by an unknown agent.
The 2020 Nobel laureates work on unravelling this unknown agent then cleared the fog on this unknown agent.
In 1978, Harvey J. Alter first demonstrated the unknown agent was a virus causing chronic hepatitis. In 1988, Michael Houghton then isolated the genome of the virus and it was named Hepatitis C virus. Charles M. Rice then proved that the virus alone causes hepatitis and thus completed the puzzle on the unknown agent in the same year. Alter and Houghton then published scientific papers in 1989 to formally announce the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.
The hepatitis C virus belongs to the Flaviviridae family of viruses. This family of viruses also has the Zika, Dengue fever, Yellow fever and West Nile viruses. It is mainly transmitted through exposure to infected blood through blood transfusion, shared needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy. It has a very low risk of transmission through sexual intercourse.
The identification of the virus allowed for screening and treatment methods for the virus to be developed. The screening tests have eliminated transmission through blood transfusion. Anti-hepatitis C virus drugs have also been developed and the disease can be cured, raising the hopes of eradicating the virus.
However, vaccine development has met several hurdles as the virus mutates rapidly, and this has posed a challenge to the scientists.
The successful testing and treatment for the disease is a major milestone in beating a virus that affects 71 million people globally, causing about 400,000 deaths in a year. This is according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) data, with the deaths resulting from cirrhosis and liver cancer.
70% of all people that get infected with the virus develop the chronic type of the infection while 30% of those who get infected will clear the infection without any treatment. The virus does not cause any symptoms once one contracts it in up to 80% of patients.
The few that may show symptoms may have a fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, pain in the abdomen, dark urine and yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), and joint pain.
Hepatitis C in Kenya
The limited research done on selected populations in Kenya showed that 7-9 people in 1000 have the hepatitis C virus in the general population. However, 13 in every 100 people who inject drugs were found to have the virus in a 2019 study published in the Lancet journal of infectious diseases.
While scientists do their research to create solutions to live’s problems and make a positive difference in the world, such awards recognize their works and give them a pat on the back and a fat wad of cash in their wallets.
The Nobel Prize is an annual award given to individuals for their outstanding discoveries, inventions or work that “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. Other Nobel prizes are awarded in the fields of physics, literature, chemistry, peace and economics.