We've spent most of 2020 in a tangle with one virus, but now, advances regarding another are receiving their due accolades as Nobel Prize week kicks off. The prize for physiology or medicine was awarded to scientists Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice for their "seminal discoveries" that led to the identification of the hepatitis C virus, per a Nobel Foundation release. The three will split the $1.1 million prize, per NBC News. Before the trio's work, knowledge of the hepatitis A and B viruses, while "critical steps forward," simply hadn't been enough to explain most blood-borne hepatitis cases. Once hepatitis C entered the picture, those unexplained cases found a cause, and new blood tests and medications were created that helped save millions.
The scientists' work started when US medical researcher Alter determined that an unidentified virus was a main underlying cause of chronic hepatitis, CNN notes. From there, UK scientist Houghton picked up the reins, isolating the genome of what became known as hepatitis C. Finally, Rice, also from the US, was able to demonstrate that hepatitis C could cause the disease all on its own. "It's long overdue," Imperial College London Professor Emeritus Gilbert Thompson says of this year's award. "Hep C arguably has caused just as much, if not more deaths, than the current coronavirus pandemic. It was a major problem, and this [work] was an enormous step forward." Watch the announcement made Monday at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, including a more in-depth explainer on the scientists' work, here. On its way Tuesday, per the New York Times: the Nobel Prize in Physics. (Read more Nobel Prize for Medicine stories.)