The Nobel Prize in Medicine 2020 goes to discoverers of hepatitis C
By Nicoletta Lanese LIVE SCIENCE
Three scientists won the 2020 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that can cause chronic inflammation of the liver, leading to severe scarring and cancer.
The researchers Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles Rice “made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus, hepatitis C virus,” the Nobel Committee wrote in a statement. Two other forms of viral hepatitis — hepatitis A and B — had already been discovered at the time, but most cases of chronic hepatitis remained unexplained, they noted.
“The discovery of hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives,” the committee wrote. The scientists’ award-winning work took place between the 1970s and 1990s, and enabled doctors to screen patients’ blood for the virus and cure many of the disease, Science Magazine reported.
The word “hepatitis” derives from the Greek words for “liver” and “inflammation,” and in addition to hepatitis viruses, the condition can arise from alcohol and drug use, bacterial infections, parasites and autoimmune disorders where the immune system attacks the liver, Live Science previously reported. Hepatitis A and E typically cause short-term illness and are transmitted through food or water contaminated with fecal matter. Hepatitis B and C, on the other hand, can lead to chronic infections and are transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids.
Physician and geneticist Baruch Blumberg won the 1976 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for first identifying hepatitis B, a discovery that led to both diagnostic tests for the virus and a successful vaccine, the committee wrote. However, even after this discovery, many cases of chronic hepatitis continued to crop up in patients who received blood transfusions, hinting that a second blood-borne virus might also cause the disease.
Alter found that the illness, which he called “non-A, non-B” hepatitis, could be transmitted from humans to chimpanzees through blood and had the characteristics of a virus. Houghton later led work to clone the virus and named it hepatitis C. Rice examined the virus’s genetic material, known as RNA, and performed genetic engineering experiments to learn how the pathogen causes hepatitis in chimps and humans. These experiments revealed that some forms of the virus do not cause disease, but an “active” form with specific genetic characteristics does.
Collectively, the three scientists’ discoveries led to the development of highly sensitive blood tests and antiviral drugs for hepatitis C; the new treatments can cure about 95% of hepatitis C patients, Science Magazine reported. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population,” the Nobel Committee wrote.
That said, about 71 million people still live with chronic hepatitis C infections, worldwide, and the World Health Organization estimates that 400,000 people died of the disease in 2016, according to Science Magazine.
A big problem is “getting drugs to people and places where they desperately need them,” John McLauchlan, a professor of viral hepatitis at the University of Glasgow, told The Associated Press, noting that the disease primarily affects poor populations and people who use drugs.
Harvey J. Alter was born in 1935 in New York. He received his medical degree at the University of Rochester Medical School, and trained in internal medicine at Strong Memorial Hospital and at the University Hospitals of Seattle. In 1961, he joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a clinical associate. He spent several years at Georgetown University before returning to NIH in 1969 to join the Clinical Center’s Department of Transfusion Medicine as a senior investigator.
Michael Houghton was born in the United Kingdom. He received his PhD degree in 1977 from King’s College London. He joined G. D. Searle & Company before moving to Chiron Corporation, Emeryville, California in 1982. He relocated to University of Alberta in 2010 and is currently a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology and the Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta where he is also Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.
Charles M. Rice was born in 1952 in Sacramento. He received his PhD degree in 1981 from the California Institute of Technology where he also trained as a postdoctoral fellow between 1981-1985. He established his research group at Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis in 1986 and became full Professor in 1995. Since 2001 he has been Professor at the Rockefeller University, New York. During 2001-2018 he was the Scientific and Executive Director, Center for the Study of Hepatitis C at Rockefeller University where he remains active.
SPIRITUALISM-THE MOLECULAR BASIS OF SPIRITUALITY:
I am using the term ‘Spiritualism’ to describe a commonsense approach to religion and God by rational interpretation of verified information provided by Science.
The molecules and processes responsible for energy acquisition, energy manipulation, growth and reproduction are basically similar in all life-forms. To understand life, consideration must be given to describe the molecules that determine its structure and to the ways in which molecules are organized. The Molecular Basis of Spirituality describes the organization of molecules that is responsible for the coordination of living functions and living activities of life-forms. Spiritualism involves the capacity or capability to organize molecules to establish the reality of biological existence by any life-form. To explain the Molecular Basis of Spirituality, I would begin with the simplest life-forms that we know.
THE FOUNDERS OF VIROLOGY – THE STUDY OF VIRUSES:
I am glad to pay my respectful tribute to Dmitri Ivanovsky, Russian Botanist, and to Martinus Beijerinck, the Dutch Microbiologist, the founders of Virology, the Study of Viruses. Ivanovsky studied the Tobacco Mosaic Disease during 1892. By conducting experiments he had demonstrated that the disease is caused by a filterable agent smaller than bacteria. In 1898, Beijerinck independently replicated Ivanovsky’s experiments and found that the infectious agent could only reproduce by infecting leaves of the Tobacco plant. He named the mysterious infectious agent as Tobacco Mosaic Virus- the first Virus recognized.
THE STUDY OF VIRUSES, VIRIONS, VIROIDS, AND VIRUSOIDS:
Viruses are small masses of material( 100 – 2,000 angstrom ), complex molecular life-forms that blur the boundaries of living and non-living material. Most Viruses are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. They are extremely small and can only be seen with an electron microscope. As compared to light microscope, electron microscope can increase magnification from 1,000 – 2,000 diameters to around 300, 000 diameters. Viruses are 1,000 times more plentiful in water than originally suspected and hence Viruses could be the most numerous life-forms on Earth. Many hundreds of different types of Viruses exist and all of them need living cells to serve them as hosts. Viruses can only complete their life cycles as parasites as they reproduce only within the cells of their hosts, upon which they depend for many of their fundamental life processes. While many Viruses are harmless to their hosts, certain Viruses are responsible for important diseases of humans, animals, and plants. Many Viruses are known to man by the specific disease entities that they cause: Smallpox, Chickenpox, Measles, Mumps, Yellow fever, Polio myelitis, Rabies, Influenza, and the Common Cold. All of us without any exception would get the chance of experiencing the bouts of one or the other Viral infections.
A complete virus particle or Virion consists of one molecule of Nucleic Acid, single or double-stranded, either DNA or RNA depending on the specific Virus. It has a protein coat called Capsid which consists of a specific number of protein molecules or Capsomers in a definitive arrangement. In some Viruses, the outer coat has lipid(fat) and carbohydrate. The protein coat helps the survival of the Virus while it exists outside a living cell. The protein coat is also concerned with the mechanisms by which the Virus enters and infects the host cell.
During the stage of its life cycle, when the Virus is free and infectious, the virus particle or Virion is inert, and does not carry out the usual functions of a living entity, such as reproduction or growth in numbers. The propagation of a Virus requires the internal environment of a complete cell, including its biochemical machinery. The Virus loses the protein coat upon entry into a cell, after which the genetic material of the Virus reproduces using materials made by the host cell. The Virus leaves the host cell surrounded by the protein coat, the characteristics of these protein molecules are determined by the genes in the Virus, but the protein molecules are synthesized by the host cell. Viruses are often described as “naked genes” which have discarded all other attributes of complete cells. The Virion or virus particle contains the knowledge or biological information that is needed for its replication. However, to perform that reproductive function, a Virus needs the host cell’s chemical energy, and protein-and nucleic-acid synthesizing ability.
Viroids and Virusoids are the smallest and simplest form of all recognized Viruses and Self-replicating Molecules. Viroids are composed of nothing more than a single circular strand of genetic material and cause major disease in plants. Since Viroids lack the protective shell of protein, they do not even spread easily from one cell or plant to another. The genetic material of Viroid is RNA which has a length of only a few hundred ribonucletids(200-400). Viroids are described as molecules of “naked RNA” that are significantly smaller than the genome of the smallest Virus. They are also called ‘subviral particles’. Viroids/Virusoids “infect” other Viruses, and use the replication process of the host Virus to replicate themselves instead. Viroids are responsible for a number of serious diseases of economically important plants like the Coconut Palm and Chrysanthemums. Episomes are pieces of self-replicating genetic molecules found in some bacterial cells. These are similar to Viruses except for the fact that they only reproduce themselves when their host cells do, whereas Viruses reproduce themselves hundreds of times and often generate the signs and symptoms of the infectious disease they cause in the host.
RNA MOLECULE AS GENETIC MATERIAL:
The RNA-containing Viruses are unique among living systems. They use RNA as their primary genetic material. Retroviruses produce the enzyme called RNA-directed DNA Polymerase or Reverse Transcriptase, which can make a DNA molecule from the Viral RNA molecule. This DNA molecule formed from RNA then serves as the principal genetic molecule within the infected, host cell. Retrovirus uses a life process that is termed ‘reverse transcription’. Two Retroviruses are associated with human leukemia which are Cancer of T-cells. The Retrovirus known as Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV is responsible for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS.
THE NUCLEIC ACID MOLECULE – THE ESSENCE AND EXISTENCE OF LIFE:
Nucleic Acids are organic substances that are characteristic of all living things. These organic molecules are not found in nature except as components or products of organisms. They are called macromolecules; molecules of molecular weight greater than 10,000 daltons or 10,000 times the weight of a Hydrogen atom. These molecules are long chains or polymers that consist of chains of smaller units called monomers. Each Nucleic Acid chain is composed of subunits called nucleotides, each of which is composed of a specific sugar molecule( Deoxyribose or Ribose ), a molecule of Phosphoric Acid, and a molecule of one of four organic bases: Adenine(A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), and Thymine (T). The two chief types of Nucleic Acid are DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid), and RNA (Ribonucleic Acid). DNA contains the sugar deoxyribose and RNA contains the sugar ribose, and the base Uracil (U) instead of Thymine (T). The specific sequences of nucleotides constitute the genetic information of the life-form. Each three-nucleotide sequence specifies one particular amino acid. The long sequences of nucleotides thus correspond to the sequences of amino acids in the proteins that are synthesized. In order to be expressed as protein, the genetic information is carried to the protein-synthesizing machinery called Ribosomes found in the cytoplasm of the cell. Forms of RNA mediate this process and are important in the expression of the genetic code contained in the DNA for the synthesis of proteins. Although the triplet nucleotide code seems to be universal, the actual sequences of the nucleotides vary according to the species and individual organism. The Nucleic Acid Molecules, DNA/RNA is the substance of heredity; it carries the ‘essence’ or character of an organism from one generation to next generation. But, in the study of Viruses we have found that this ‘essence’ is not displayed until its ‘existence’ is supported and is established in a complete living cell. The Nucleic Acid Molecules do not have the capacity or capability of acquiring energy from their external environment. The Virion or virus particle is inert until it finds a host cell to establish its life as a living thing. The Nucleic Acid Molecules are important to establish the ‘essence’ of an organism and I find the characteristics called ‘Spiritualism’ or ‘Spirituality’ in the functional organization of those Molecules that establish the ‘existence’ of a living entity.
THE MOLECULAR BASIS OF SPIRITUALITY:
The purpose and goal of Spiritualism or Spirituality is that of generating Peace, Harmony, Tranquility and Equilibrium in all functional relationships within the Individual and between members of the Biotic or Biological Community. The disease, the disability, the morbidity, and the deaths caused by Viral infections demonstrate the consequences of Biotic Interactions called Parasitism. The functional organization of a variety of Molecules that formulate the phenomenon of ‘Existence’ is attributable to the ground substance found inside the Living, Complete Cell. The viral particles have no such functional organizational capacity or capability. In my analysis, the Spirit or Soul represents the ‘Knower’ of the functions and is the operating principle of the molecular organization underlying the phenomenon of ‘Existence’. The protoplasm, the ground substance, or the corporeal material of lifeforms is the ‘spiritual’ basis of Existence.
Dr. R. Rudra Narasimham, B.Sc., M.B.B.S.,
Kurnool Medical College, Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, India,
M.B.B.S. Class of April 1970.
- Spiritualism – the Biological Basis of Spirituality (bhavanajagat.com)
- Spiritualism – the Cognitive Science of Spirituality (bhavanajagat.com)
- Spiritualism – the Cell Theory of Spirituality (bhavanajagat.com)
- Spiritualism and Intelligence (bhavanajagat.com)
- Spiritualism and Materialism (bhavanajagat.com)