In the midst of a pandemic, the Nobel Prize for medicine has three discoverers of the hepatitis C virus

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded Monday to three virologists, the Briton based in Canada Michael Houghton and the Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, for their role in the discovery of the virus responsible for hepatitis vs.

The Anglo-Saxon trio is rewarded for its “decisive contribution”, years apart, to “the discovery of the hepatitis C virus”, said the Nobel jury, in the midst of the global race to unravel the secrets of another pandemic, that of COVID-19.

At the end of the 1970s, Harvey Alter had identified that a mysterious liver contamination took place during transfusions when it was neither linked to hepatitis A nor hepatitis B, the jury said, which has in particular contributed to reducing transmissions to almost nil in this way.

Years later, in 1989, Michael Houghton and his team, based in Canada, were credited with discovering the genetic sequence of the virus.

As for Charles Rice, 68, he went on to dissect for many years how the virus replicated itself, work that notably led to the emergence of a revolutionary new treatment at the turn of the 2010s, sofosbuvir. “It provided the final proof that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause the disease,” said Patrik Ernfors, chairman of the committee that chooses the winners.

“I think it’s quite easy to relate to the current situation,” said the latter. “The first thing to do is to identify the virus involved, and once that has been done, it is the starting point for developing treatments for the disease, as well as vaccines. So the viral discovery is a critical moment, ”he said.

The World Health Organization estimates that some 70 million hepatitis C infections cause 400,000 deaths each year, although effective, albeit very expensive, treatments have been developed in recent years.

The prize is the first directly linked to a virus since that of 2008. In 1976, the Nobel had already gone to work on hepatitis B.

“This is the best wake-up alarm I have ever had! Said winner Harvey Alter, who said he was woken up by phone calls from the Nobel Foundation around 4:30 a.m., before finally deciding to pick up on the third call.

“This is something we think is never going to happen […], and finally it happens ”, told the Foundation the man who became at the age of 85 one of the oldest laureates of the Nobel in medicine, without breaking the record (87 years).

There are now 210 men who have been awarded the “physiology or medicine” award since its inception in 1901, and only 12 women.

From the discovery more than half a century ago of two types of lymphocytes, B and T, essential in the understanding of our immune system, until the breakthrough of the “molecular scissors” in genetics in the 2010s, in through work on breast cancer, several major medical advances – and their authors – were cited by experts as nobelizable this year.

Other scientists had been mentioned as nobelisables for their work on hepatitis C, the German Ralf Bartenschlager for basic research, and the American Michael Sofia for the development of sofosbuvir, now sold at a high price. by the Gilead laboratory under the name Sovaldi.

The winners of the last five years

No physical award ceremony

While the 2020 Nobels are well announced as planned this week, the coronavirus led to the cancellation of the physical award ceremony on December 10 in Stockholm. A first since 1944.

The winner (s) announced on Monday must receive their prize in their country of residence.

This 2020 edition of the Nobel, which continues on Tuesday with physics and Wednesday with chemistry, is considered particularly open.

For peace on Friday, freedom of the press (Reporters Without Borders, Committee for the Protection of Journalists …) or the climate, with the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future, or the WHO are mentioned to succeed the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

For literature on Thursday, fifteen profiles are predicted, ranging from American-Caribbean Jamaica Kincaid to Albanian Ismaïl Kadaré via Canadian Anne Carson. Unless Michel Houellebecq or Maryse Condé, bring a sixteenth prize to France, world leader of the winners.

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