Nobel Prize in Medicine 2020 | UPSC

Nobel Prize in Medicine 2020 | UPSC


Three win Nobel Prize in medicine for discovery of Hepatitis C virus

      WHY IN NEWS:

Hope sustains life !

SYLLABUS COVERED: GS 1 : Awards : Diseases : Science and technology


For PRELIMS Hepatitis C is very important . We have mentioned the details . We will cover this in Editorial Hunts very soon .

For MAINS go through recombinant DNA technology once and keep an eye on transfusion methods.


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


  • Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice won the prize for the discovery of the virus .
  • The virus that caused several deaths in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Nobel Prize 2020 in Physiology / Medicine was awarded to three scientists jointly.

  • The novel virus remained unknown till its discovery in the late 1980s.
  • Hepatitis C virus is a bloodborne virus and causes liver diseases.


  • The discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward.
  • The majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained.

The discovery of Hepatitis C virus has made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.

  • According to the World Health Organization, Hepatitis C virus causes 400,000 deaths globally every year.
  • Globally, an estimated 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C virus infection.
  • In the 1960s, American physician Baruch Blumberg discovered Hepatitis B virus .
  • He was awarded a Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1976.


  • Around the same time, Alter, who was then studying at the NIH, found a large number of patients reporting Hepatitis infection after blood transfusion.
  • Several people were found to be infected with the Hepatitis B virus; the infection in remaining cases, however, could not be explained.
  • Many subsequent studies confirmed Alter’s hypothesis of a mysterious illness that came to be known as “non-A, non-Bhepatitis.
  • Houghton, then working for pharmaceutical firm Chiron, decided to do the genetic sequencing of the new virus to understand its characteristics.

The work showed that this virus belonged Flavivirus family to which Heptatitis B did not belong.

  • The new virus was named Hepatitis C virus.
  • Rice, then a researcher at Washington University in St Louis, discovered that the new virus could replicate itself.
  • It added the 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.

Nobel Prize in Medicine 2020 | UPSC

 (From left) Harvey J. Alter, Charles M. Rice, and Michael Houghton (Rhoda Baer/National Institutes of Health, Richard Siemens/University of Alberta.


  • The Nobel Prize website said the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) was one of the important milestones in improvement in public health.
  • This has also raised hopes for eliminating the disease.

The discoveries of HBV and HCV, and the establishment of effective screening routines, have virtually eliminated the risk of transmission via blood products in many parts of the world.


  • A vaccine for this has not been developed mainly because it’s a very fast-changing virus.
  • But it is possibly the only chronic virus for which a definitive cure is now available.
  • Anti-viral drugs could be developed based on the understanding of the biology of the virus to which Harvey’s lab contributed very significantly.
  • In fact, there were a few others whose contributions were equally significant, people like Robert Purcell and Ralf Bartenschlager.

Infact they seemed to have missed out on the Prize only because the Nobel cannot be shared by more than three people.


  • One of the important steps towards finding a vaccine was taken by an Indian company in the late 1990s.

Hyderabad-based Shantha Biotech, which produced the first recombinant DNA-based vaccine for Hepatitis B infection, had begun work on Hepatitis C as well.

  • It had funded the work of a US-based Indian-origin scientist .
  • The scientist had succeeded in sequencing the entire genome of the Hepatitis C virus present in the Indian population.
  • But no progress was made after that.



  • Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver.
  • When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected.

Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions can all cause hepatitis.

  • However, hepatitis is often caused by a virus.
  • The most common hepatitis viruses are hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B virus, and hepatitis C virus.


  • Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are liver infections caused by three different viruses.

Although each can cause similar symptoms, they are spread in different ways and can affect the liver differently.

  • Hepatitis A is usually a short-term infection.
  • Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can also begin as short-term infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body and causes chronic (long-term) infection.
  • There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B; however, there was no vaccine for hepatitis C.


  • Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus.
  • Hepatitis C can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, long-term illness.

Hepatitis C is often described as “acute,” meaning a new infection, or “chronic,” meaning long-term infection.

  • ACUTE HEPATITIS C occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus.
  • CHRONIC HEPATITIS C Can be a lifelong infection if left untreated. It can damage liver , cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and even death.


The hepatitis C virus is usually spread when someone comes into contact with blood from an infected person.

This can happen through:

►Sharing drug-injection equipment : sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs.

Birth – From Infected mother to baby.

►Healthcare exposures.- Unhealthy healthcare practices.

Sex with an infected person. – Unprotected sexual intercourse.

►Unregulated tattoos or body piercings. – During blood transfusions.

Sharing personal items : Ex : Glucose monitors, razors, nail clippers.

Organ transplants.

Hepatitis C is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing.

  • It is also not spread through food or water.


  • The Hepatitis A virus was known to spread mainly through contaminated food and water.
  • It caused a relatively milder form of liver inflammation.

Hepatitis B, discovered in the 1960s, was known to transmit mainly through infected blood, and caused a more serious form of the disease.

  • Incidentally, the discovery of the Hepatitis B virus too was rewarded with a Nobel Prize in Medicine, given to Baruch Blumberg in 1976.
  • There are vaccines available for this disease now.
  • The discovery and identification of Hepatitis B virus facilitated the development of a diagnostic test to detect its presence in blood.
  • In the 1960s, Alter had a collaborated with Blumberg, the 1976 Nobel winner.

      IASbhai WINDUP: 

  • Alter works with the United States National Institute of Health (NIH);
  • Rice is the executive director at Rockfeller University’s Center for the Study of Hepatitis C, also in the US.
  • Houghton is a United Kingdom citizen, and works at Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute in Canada.
  • Alter later moved to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he continues to work.


  • At NIH, Alter worked at the blood bank and had access to a large collection of blood samples which facilitated his investigations into cases of hepatitis caused after blood transfusion.
  • It was Alter, along with some of this colleagues, who was able to define the characteristics of the then unknown virus.
  • But despite over 10 years of effort, Alter and his collaborators were not able to establish the identity of the virus.
  • That work was accomplished by Houghton, who was working independently at Chiron Corporation, a US biotechnology firm.

After painstaking work screening over a million DNA sequences, Houghton was able to identify the new virus in 1982, after which it was named Hepatitis C.

  • In 1997, Rice, then working at Washington University, was able to conclusively show that it was indeed this virus that was causing chronic hepatitis in human beings.
     SOURCES:THE HINDU & PIB | Nobel Prize in Medicine 2020 | UPSC



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