Nobel Prizes 2020: Medicine – Vorarlberger Nachrichten

We build a bacteria model from Styrofoam with a diameter of one meter. With the help of this model we want to represent the size ratio of bacteria and viruses. The viruses, drawn to scale, would be as small as the heads of a pin on the Styrofoam bacterium. Viruses are so tiny that even today there are contemporaries who refuse to believe in them. But scientists don’t want to believe. They want to know. From 1931, the year in which the electron microscope was invented in Germany, they knew it.

The Nobel Prize for Medicine this year goes to the discoverers of the hepatitis C virus, namely the American virologist Harvey Alter (* 1935), the British-Canadian biochemist Michael Houghton (* 1949) and the American virologist Charles Rice (born 1952).

There are two forms of hepatitis. First, a disease caused by the hepatitis A virus that is transmitted through contaminated water or food, and second, those caused by types B or C. This form of hepatitis is transmitted in the same way as the HI virus. It is often a chronic disease that, if left untreated, can develop into cirrhosis and cancer of the liver. Epidemiologists estimate that around 400,000 people die each year from the long-term effects of hepatitis C. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but not against hepatitis C.

Treatment methods are now available for hepatitis C. Thanks to the discoveries of the three Neo Prize winners, hepatitis C can be cured, according to the Nobel Prize Committee. They found the cause of chronic hepatitis cases and enabled blood tests and new drugs that have saved countless lives.

Harvey Alter was the first person to be convinced, after examining blood products and sick patients, that there must be a viral C variant in addition to hepatitis A and B Michael Houghton and Charles Rice took up the theory, but the search proved difficult. The researchers first collected genetic material fragments from the blood of infected chimpanzees. To find out which of these fragments belonged to the virus they were looking for, they tried to identify gene sequences in the blood serum of hepatitis patients. The search was successful in the end. The hepatitis C virus is a so-called RNA virus, like CoV-2 or influenza. It has a high mutation rate, which has prevented the development of a vaccine so far. Seven different types with different gene sequences are known, which in turn have different subtypes.

“The Nobel Prize for Medicine this year goes to the discoverers of the hepatitis C virus.”

Rudolf Öller

Mag. Dr. Rudolf Öller is
Biologist and lecturer
of the Red Cross.

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