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Nobel Prize for Medicine Goes to Trio Behind Hepatitis C Discovery

Health + Wellness
Nobel Prize for Medicine Goes to Trio Behind Hepatitis C Discovery
The Nobel Assembly announces the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 5, 2020. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP via Getty Images

As the world continues to battle one deadly virus, the Nobel Assembly is honoring three scientists who discovered another.

The assembly announced Monday it was awarding the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

"Prior to their work, the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained," the Nobel Assembly said in a statement. "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 three researchers each contributed to solving a deadly medical mystery.

Hepatitis, or liver inflammation, is typically caused by viral infections. By the 1940s, researchers had discovered two: Hepatitis A, which is food-and-water-borne and does not typically cause lasting harm, and a blood-borne hepatitis that can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. In the 1960s, scientists identified one blood-borne virus that they called Hepatitis B. But, after diagnostic tests and a vaccine were developed, people continued to catch a form of hepatitis after blood transfusions.

What follows is a timeline of how the winning researchers uncovered the culprit, according to BBC News.

1972: Professor Harvey Alter discovered while working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that people were still getting liver disease after blood transfusions. He injected chimpanzees with the blood of infected patients and showed that the chimps also developed the disease.

1989: While working at the pharmaceutical firm Chiron, professor Michael Houghton isolated the genetic sequence of the mystery virus, which was then called Hepatitis C.

1997: Professor Charles Rice conducted an experiment at Washington University in St. Louis in which he genetically engineered a Hepatitis C virus and injected it into a chimpanzee, proving that the virus did in fact cause hepatitis.

The discoveries enabled the creation of diagnostic tests for Hepatitis C, which have stopped it from being passed through transfusions in much of the world, the Nobel Assembly explained. Further, the findings have made possible the development of antiviral treatments. While blood-borne hepatitis still claims more than a million lives a year, the winners' work may contribute to a world in which that is no longer the case.

"For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population," the assembly wrote.

The scientists all kept on researching after their discoveries. Alter continues to study Hepatitis C and other blood transfusion risks at the NIH. Houghton is a virology professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, where he directs the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute, The New York Times reported. Rice teaches at Rockefeller University in New York and directed its Center for the Study of Hepatitis C from 2001 to 2018.

Nobel Assembly secretary-general Thomas Perlmann told BBC News he was only able to reach Rice and Alter with the news of their win.

"They were definitely not sitting by the phone because I called them a couple of times before without any answer," Perlmann said. "But once I reached them, they were extremely surprised and they were really happy and speechless almost, so it was really fun to talk to them."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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