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The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Dr. Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice on Monday for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough the Nobel committee said had “made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.”

“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population,” the committee said in a statement. They announced the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

About 71 million people worldwide live with a chronic infection of the hepatitis C virus, a blood-borne pathogen that can cause severe liver inflammation, or hepatitis, and is typically transmitted through shared or reused needles and syringes, infected blood transfusions and sexual practices that lead to blood exposure.

Tests and treatments “all start with being able to recognize the virus exists,” said Craig Cameron, chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a hepatitis C virus researcher.

The discovery of the hepatitis C virus solved a thorny scientific mystery that had plagued physicians and researchers for years.

Credit…National Institutes of Health/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A number of hepatitis viruses can infiltrate the liver and cause a range of health problems, some of which are fatal. One

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