Michael Houghton is shown in a University of Alberta handout photo. British scientist Houghton, who works at the University of Alberta, and Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology on Monday for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Alberta MANDATORY CREDIT

U of A researcher shares Nobel prize for hepatitis C virus discovery

WHO estimates there are over 70 million cases of hepatitis C worldwide and 400,000 deaths from it each year

British scientist Michael Houghton, who works at the University of Alberta, and Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology on Monday for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

Announcing the prize in Stockholm, the Nobel Committee noted that the men’s work identified a major source of blood-borne hepatitis that couldn’t be explained by the previously discovered hepatitis A and B viruses. Their work, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, has helped saved millions of lives, it said.

“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 committee said.

“Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C,” it added. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population.”

Houghton is director of the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.

“Michael Houghton’s achievement cannot be overstated,” said University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan. “Dr. Houghton has made this world a better place. As president of the University of Alberta, the institution where he has dedicated his time, I am proud and exhilarated that his work has been recognized in this way.”

The hepatitis C virus is a major source of liver disease that affects millions worldwide.

WHO estimates there are over 70 million cases of hepatitis C worldwide and 400,000 deaths from it each year. The disease is chronic and a major cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis requiring liver transplants.

John McLauchlan, a professor of viral hepatitis at the University of Glasgow, called the three laureates “pioneers” and said their discovery made the global elimination of the disease possible. In 2016, the World Health Organization issued a strategy to wipe out the disease by 2030.

“That would mark the first time we might possibly control a viral infection using only drugs,” McLauchlan said.

“The only issue is getting drugs to people and places where they desperately need them,” he said, adding that the disease primarily strikes stigmatized populations like drug users and the poor.

Alter, who was born in 1935 in New York, carried out his prize-winning studies at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where he remains active, the committee said. Rice, born in 1952 in Sacramento, California, worked on hepatitis at Washington University in St. Louis and now works at Rockefeller University in New York. Houghton, born in Britain in 1950, studied at the Chiron Corporation in California before moving to the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

The medicine prize carried particular significance this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted the importance that medical research has for societies and economies around the world.

Will Irving, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, said that identifying hepatitis C had been the “holy grail” in medicine.

“After hepatitis A and B were discovered in the 1970s, it was clear there was still at least one other virus or more that were causing liver damage,” he said.

“We knew there was a virus in the blood supply, because when people had blood transfusions they would get liver damage,” Irving said. “It was recognized as a risk but there was nothing we could do. We didn’t know what the virus was and we couldn’t test for it.”

Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors drew a parallel between this year’s prize and the current rush by millions of scientists around the world to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“The first thing you need to do is to identify the causing virus,” he told reporters. “And once that has been done, that is, in itself, the starting point for development of drugs to treat the disease and also to develop vaccines against the disorder.”

Unlike hepatitis A, which is transmitted via food or water and causes an acute infection that can last a few weeks, hepatitis B and C are transmitted through blood.

American scientist Baruch Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967 and received the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine, but this did not explain all cases of chronic hepatitis, a disease that was becoming more common even in apparently healthy people who had received or given blood.

“Before the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, it was a bit like Russian roulette to get a blood transfusion,” said Nobel Committee member Nils-Goran Larsson.

Alter was working at the U.S. National Institutes of Health when he discovered that plasma from patients who didn’t have hepatitis B could also could transfer the disease.

“The breakthrough came in 1989, when Michael Houghton and colleagues working at Chiron Corporation used a combination of molecular biology and immunology-based techniques to clone the virus,” said Nobel Committee member Gunilla Karlsson-Hedestam.

Later, Rice confirmed that a cloned hepatitis virus alone could cause persistent infection in chimpanzees and reproduce the disease observed in humans.

The hepatitis C virus belongs to a group known as flaviviruses that also includes West Nile virus, dengue virus and yellow fever virus.

Thomas Perlmann, the Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee, managed Monday to reach two of the winners, Alter and Rice.

“I had to call a couple of times before they answered,” he said. “They seemed very surprised and very, very happy.”

Graham Foster, professor of hepatology at Queen Mary University, said the discovery of hepatitis C had prevented millions from getting sick or dying of the disease or other liver problems and that the awarding of the Nobel to Alter, Houghton and Rice was very well deserved.

Foster said the discovery has had significant impacts in both developing countries, like Egypt and Pakistan, where millions were infected via contaminated medical equipment or procedures, and in developed countries like the U.S., where the blood supply itself was often contaminated.

“This discovery allowed for safe blood transfusion and it allowed the rapid development of treatments for hepatitis C,” Foster said. “We are now in a position where we have drugs that are 96% effective if you take a pill for eight weeks.”

The Nobel Committee often recognizes basic science that has laid the foundations for practical applications in common use today.

“It takes time before it’s fully apparent how beneficial a discovery is,” said Perlmann. “Of course these serological tests have been around for quite a while, but the antiviral drugs that emerged as a consequence of this significant discovery have been much more recent.”

The prestigious Nobel award comes with a gold medal and prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (over US$1,118,000), courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.

Monday’s medicine award is the first of six prizes this year being announced through Oct. 12. The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

David Keyton And Frank Jordans, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s Municipal Affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Province and rural municipalities agree on a plan to support Alberta’s energy industry

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

East Central Express also offers wedding or event shuttle services and tours of the Rocky Mountains. Photo courtesy of East Central Express.
On-demand bus service will now stop in Lacombe

As the winter months arrive, Rob Duncan expects demand for his bus and taxi services to grow

The influenza vaccine will be available at no cost starting Monday in Alberta. “The more that we can avoid influenza-related tests, emergency visits and hospitalizations, the stronger our system will be to support those with COVID-19 and all other health needs," says Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Hinshaw urges Albertans to get flu shot as COVID cases jump by 332

Alberta’s central zone now has 132 active COVID-19 cases

A new biorefinery that will turn organic waste into natural energy was announced in Lacombe on Oct. 15. From left to right: Steve MacDonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta, Grant Creasey, Mayor of the City of Lacombe, Ron Orr, MLA for Lacombe-Ponoka, Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks and Chris Thrall, President and CEO of BioRefinex Canada Inc. (Photo Courtesey of The City of Lacombe)
Lacombe to become world’s first site for a new type of clean energy facility

A biorefinery will be built in 2021 creating temporary and full-time jobs, the province announced.

In this photo provided by Shannon Kiss, smoke from the CalWood Fire billows, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, as seen from Gunbarrel, Colo. (Shannon Kiss via AP)
‘First guys out:’ Western Canadian air tanker fleet busy despite drop in wildfires

CEO believes wildfires have become more dangerous in recent years as people live closer to where they start

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

robbery
UPDATE: Suspect identified in early morning shooting

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Executive Director of Agape Kate Halas (left) receives $1000 from Sgt. Eric Christensen (right) on behalf of Agape. Photo/ Shaela Dansereau.
Former Wetaskiwin Peace Officer wins provincial award; gives back to Wetaskiwin community

Eric Christensen has won the Alberta Association of Community Peace Officers Award of Excellence.

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Big boost for Alberta college agriculture research

The $2-million agreement to benefit Lethbridge College’s applied research team

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry into U.S., Canadian couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Employee Sophia Lovink shows off a bag of merchandise in Toronto on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Canada gets C-average grade on 2nd year of cannabis legalization

Cannabis Council of Canada releases report card on federal government and legalization

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States are being extended until at least Nov. 21. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Non-essential travel restrictions at Canada-U.S. border extended to at least Nov. 21

The restrictions do not apply to those providing essential services in either country

(The Canadian Perss)
Banff wolves have lower survival rate due to hunting, trapping outside park boundary

Researchers looked at 72 radio-collared wolves in the national park from 1987 to August 2019

Most Read