Nobel 2020: Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice

Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice together with Briton Michael Houghton won the Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, the Nobel jury said.

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The three were honoured for their “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,” the jury said.

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“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 Nobel committee said.

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Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C.

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“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population,” the jury said.

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Often the Nobel Assembly recognises basic science that has laid the foundations for practical applications in common use today.

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It is common for several scientists who worked in the same field to share the prize. Last year, British scientist Peter Ratcliffe and Americans William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza received the award for discovering details of how the body’s cells sense and react to low oxygen levels.

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

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The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

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A list of the winners of the Nobel Medicine Prize in the past 10 years

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  • 2020: Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, together with Briton Michael Houghton, for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, leading to the development of sensitive blood tests and antiviral drugs.
  • 2019: William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza of the US and Britain’s Peter Ratcliffe for establishing the basis of our understanding of how cells react and adapt to different oxygen levels.
  • 2018: Immunologists James Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, for figuring out how to release the immune system’s brakes to allow it to attack cancer cells more efficiently.
  • 2017: US geneticists Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young for their discoveries on the internal biological clock that governs the wake-sleep cycles of most living things.
  • 2016: Yoshinori Ohsumi (Japan) for his work on autophagy – a process whereby cells “eat themselves” – which when disrupted can cause Parkinson’s and diabetes.
  • 2015: William Campbell (US citizen born in Ireland) and Satoshi Omura (Japan), Tu Youyou (China) for unlocking treatments for malaria and roundworm.
  • 2014: John O’Keefe (Britain, US), Edvard I. Moser and May-Britt Moser (Norway) for discovering how the brain navigates with an “inner GPS”.
  • 2013: Thomas C. Suedhof (US citizen born in Germany), James E. Rothman and Randy W. Schekman (US) for work on how the cell organises its transport system.
  • 2012: Shinya Yamanaka (Japan) and John B. Gurdon (Britain) for discoveries showing how adult cells can be transformed back into stem cells.
  • 2011: Bruce Beutler (US), Jules Hoffmann (French citizen born in Luxembourg) and Ralph Steinman (Canada) for work on the body’s immune system.

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