Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine goes to three for discovering the Hepatitis C virus

October 5, 2020 • 7:00 am

Knowing that the first Nobel Prize for science would be awarded today—in Physiology or Medicine—I made a contest in which readers were to guess just one winner of each of the three science prizes plus the winner of this year’s Literature Nobel.

Well, the first prize was awarded this morning, and the contest is already over. Everyone lost (see here and here).

Granted, this was not an easy one to guess. The award in fact went to three people—Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles Rice—with each getting a third of the prize money. The award was given for the discovery of the virus that causes Hepatitis C.  Here’s part of the press release from the Nobel Prize site:

This year’s Nobel Prize is awarded to three scientists who have made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world.

Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus, Hepatitis C virus. 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 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.

. . . The Nobel Laureates’ discovery of Hepatitis C virus is a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases (Figure 2). 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. 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

Here’s the video of the award with details about the winners, and giving some scientific background; the action starts at 12:50. It’s worth listening to the 20 minutes of science, as you’ll learn a lot. There’s also an interview with the Secretary of the Prize Committee beginning at 34:34.

I guess the prize for CRISPR-Cas9 will have to wait for another year.

22 thoughts on “Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine goes to three for discovering the Hepatitis C virus

  1. Although I have no philosophical objection to awards (hey, good deeds should be rewarded, as well as dirty deeds done . . .), but I do have practical objections. In science, I think, the days of just one person, or just two, or just three to “discover” something are long past. And don’t get me started on the literature prize (no Tennessee Williams!), or the Rock and Roll Hall (no Boston!). Or the Hockey H of F, or . . . .

        1. Bringing up the Peace Prize impels me to mention that there is a huge difference between that Norwegian rather than Swedish business, together with the Economics Prize which has nothing to do with Alfred Nobel, and as well the Literature Prize, which is closer to the popularity contests between reality TV shows (yes, yes, I exaggerate), as opposed to the Nobel prizes in the hard sciences. (Too long a sentence!)

          But they all very often say more about the juries than about the prize winners. I’d say far more often in the three first mentioned above. Those need serious ignoring by most of us most of the time.

          However I’ll admit I’d probably never have read Laxness’ Icelandic novel “Independent People” without that Nobel Literature prize, and my life would then have been less stimulating. (Asta Sollilja!)

    1. Having read lots of articles that make a compelling criticism in that direction, I am at last asking “so what?”.

      What everyone makes of the Nobel Prize is one thing. It is an antiquated but extant prize. But consider – hepatitis C, the cause of cervical cancer, and all the other discoveries – things that we wouldn’t even know about – is bigger than any three individuals, or even the thousands of scientists who go their whole careers with not even a nomination.

      So yes, the Prize is old fashioned, unable to represent the pace and infrastructure of modern scientific pursuit, and has great weight for research funding. But all it is really doing is recognizing discovery.

      [ non-serious part ]:

      It’s only to Tom Scholz’ and Brad Delp’s credit if they aren’t in a Hall of Fame.

  2. Personally, this emphasizes – if not already clear – that everything about the Nobel Prize is *discovery*. The laureates must have discovered a thing. The old secretary Goran always emphasized that. I’d add in the Fields medal on the same footing, but for recognition of problem solving.
    Discovery and problem solving is what I take from these.

    That means when the Nobel Prize comes up in conversation or discourse, it is to emphasize discovery – Fields for problem solving. Anything else is for things like Mensa – whatever that really is.

    1. If you believe mathematical things–like numbers which measure things like bananas on a tree, like the Lorentzian manifolds of General Relativity, like the Hilbert space operators of quantum mechanics, the gravitational fields, the gravitational waves,–to believe that none did exist, but only come into existence when some human ‘invented’ them, you are not alone in making this distinction between discovery and invention.

      I’m not alone either in thinking that somehow there was a period of about 4.6 billion years which itself has existed (well, past versus future, and spaceTIMES can be left out to save words), in which these things have existed, and that mathematicians/physicists have discovered them well after, during the last few hundred thousand years during which modern humans have been around.

      Perhaps it should be more like 350 years. If it were 460 years to make the arithmetic simple, it seems to me unlikely they failed to exist for all but the last (1/10million)th of that time, but were just conjured into existence by us ingenious humans. Of course time itself doesn’t exist in some views. (Relativity says time fails to be unique, not that it doesn’t exist), I’m afraid these people are beginning to more-and-more sound to me like the postmodern ‘philosophers’!

      But I’m a ‘nutcase’ who thinks the many-worlds of Everettian quantum theory likely exists as well. And I’m seeing some much better brains than mine agreeing.

      Perhaps I misinterpret yor “problem solving” as meaning invention rather than discovery. But I would emohasize there is such a thing called a mathematical object, as above.

      1. “Perhaps I misinterpret yor “problem solving” as meaning invention rather than discovery. But I would emohasize there is such a thing called a mathematical object, as above”

        I almost wrote “discovery” on the basis you expounded upon, but balked because “problem solving” seemed closer to what mathematicians do – and because the millenium prize is formulated as unsolved problems. Indeed, in the course of solving problems, I agree mathematicians discover things too. Scientists solve problems also but another view is of being puzzled by something inexplicable and the discovery uncovers an entity previously unknown, in this case, hepatitis C. Seems more concrete for a lay audience, perhaps.

        It depends on the discovery/problem, it is amusing, but I don’t think either view is an insult.

        1. Good, I likely did misread.

          And to be clear in case I am misunderstood in overemphasizing the ‘mathematical structure’, Nobel Prizes like this one today, which have and will save so many lives, are much to be applauded. It is hard to imagine just how satisfying that kind of discovery must be. As a Canuck, I always think back to the insulin discovery of Banting and Best. The jury did give it to slightly the wrong second person there unfortunately.

  3. The CRISPR-Cas9 prize could still come this year. Many discoveries in molecular biology have been awarded the Chemistry Prize rather than the Medicine and Physiology prize.
    What counts against it is the fact that it is very recent. The discoverers of CRISPR-Cas9 are all still young and should be around for a few more decades. The current winner’s discoveries that contributed to the current prize were made between 50 – 30 years ago.
    Quite often the prize committees are faced with the dilemma of either awarding a prize to elderly scientists, with the expected criticism – ‘old white men again!’ – or losing the chance to recognize that work at all since science prizes are not awarded to deceased scientists.

  4. Damn. Out in the first round. This one wasn’t even on my short list.

    Just goes to show what I already knew. I’m completely out of my depth regarding Nobel predictions.

  5. What are the odds, I wonder, of anyone guessing four names correctly given that the nominees are secret, as are the precise criteria of the Nobel committee?

    1. There is all sorts of stuff to consider out there that is readily available – citations, other awards given, etc. Some awards are strong predictors.

        1. Ummm … I an probably taking that question too seriously, but it is easy to read a list of past prize winners (e.g. Lasker) and make a guess… it is at least amusing, but can be interesting…

Leave a Reply