The three researchers – Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice – were together recognised for their work in the late 1980s.
The medicine prize is the first of those given out during the week, and has taken on particular significance amid the global coronavirus outbreak.
The Nobel committee appeared to gesture towards that context when they praised the scientists for their work on a “landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases”.
The three researchers’ discoveries helped save millions of lives after they led to breakthroughs that allowed it to be cured.
But the fight against it continues, with blood-borne hepatitis still causing more than a million deaths per year.
“Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus, Hepatitis C virus,” the Nobel committee wrote in a press release.
“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 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 – two US-born and one British but now working in Canada – were recognised for separate work that together helped discover and then fight the virus.
Alter first demonstrated that an unknown virus was causing chronic hepatitis, Houghton used a strategy to isolate the genome of that new virus, and Rice provided the final evidence to show that the hepatitis C virus alone could cause the disease.