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Nobel Laureate Medicine 2020: Charles M. Rice

Charles Rice Photo John Abbott
A loss for the world’s sea urchins turned into a win for virology research. When Dr. Charles M. Rice, PhD, entered a doctoral program at the California Institute of Technology, he expected to continue his studies on sea urchins. Instead, he was placed in a virology lab, creating a whole new set of interests. And viruses soon replaced sea urchins as the focus of Rice’s research. His decades of work related to the hepatitis C virus led to discoveries that earned him one-third of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Rice, the Maurice R. and Corinne P. Greenberg professor in virology at Rockefeller University, shared the prize with Dr. Michael Houghton, PhD, of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, who identified the hepatitis C virus in 1989 along with colleagues Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo; and Dr. Harvey Alter, MD, of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Historically, we haven’t done too well at curing chronic viral infections; this is a success story that may help to ignite efforts in other infectious disease areas and to come up with better solutions.” “I was happy that the award was made in the hepatitis C research field – it has been a spectacular story – a real success story,” says Rice. “The early attempts to treat it did work, but the success rate in the early days was about five percent. When you fast forward to today, we can now cure almost everyone in 8 to 12 weeks. The saga stretched on for more than 40 years – it was a much longer road than we thought. It turned out to be very difficult virus. Historically, we haven’t done too well at curing chronic viral infections; this is a success story that may help to ignite efforts in other infectious disease areas and to come up with better solutions.”     The potential for making a contribution to a critical human health problem drew Charles Rice to the hepatitis C studies, he says. Before that, he had become interested in biology while attending college and participated in research with a professor on the development of sea urchins, including taking a course at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts. The inexplicable placement in a lab with viruses rather than sea urchins when Rice arrived at graduate school set him on his path. Read more: Harvey J. Alter: A scientist's scientist The first cell-based system for hepatitis C Charles Rice’s research on this group of viruses started with the virus that causes yellow fever and led to ways to make and modify yellow fever virus RNA in the lab so that it could be studied. He started applying this knowledge to the hepatitis C and found an undiscovered segment on the end of hepatitis C virus RNA, and wondered if the missing piec
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