It was announced on October 5 that the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was awarded to the discoverers of Hepatitis C virus (HCV), Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice. Besides congratulating the three laureates on winning the award, the Tang Prize Foundation also fully acknowledges the significance of their contribution, while also noticing that the 2020 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science and the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology both went to scientists whose seemingly basic research has led to groundbreaking clinical applications that have benefited people all over the world.
The Nobel Prize committee lauded these three laureates’ achievements in identifying the virus, isolating the genetic sequence of the virus, and proving that the virus can cause chronic hepatitis. Their very important discoveries paved the way for further research on how to prevent and treat Hepatitis C, but it was not until about 7 years ago did the first oral Hepatitis C treatment become available, providing patients with HCV a powerful tool to fight against this disease. Progressing from the initial discovery to the actual pill for disease management was made possible by many scientists’ continuous and strenuous efforts for over decades, a story people working in different braches of biomedical research are familiar with.
Considering the large number of scientists involved in the making of groundbreaking discoveries, how to decide who have made most valuable contributions has been the Tang Prize Selection Committee’s greatest challenge in each selection cycle. What distinguishes the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science from the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology is that the Tang Prize puts more emphasis on how original research evolved into actual methods to help improve human health and wellbeing. Taking this year’s Tang Prize as an example, the award was given to three scientists who made huge contributions to the treatment of autoinflammatory and autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and psoriasis. After very careful investigation and many rounds of discussions, the Selection Committee decided that the most prominent drugs are biologics that inhibit the cytokines IL-1, TNF, and IL-6, and these three laureates have helped the development of their respective drugs take a huge leap forward. Dr. Dinarello pioneered the field of cytokine study by discovering and cloning IL-1β, which laid the foundation for the development of drugs that target IL-1; Dr. Feldmann overcame much skepticism and finally proved that we can treat rheumatoid arthritis by blocking TNF, thus opening up a whole new era of cytokine inhibitor drug development. Dr. Kishimoto and his team went through the whole process from bench to bedside, not only identifying and cloning IL-6, but also engaging in the development of a drug that blocks IL-6 activity.
We live in a world where social, economic and industrial developments facilitated by globalization have allowed us to create a more advanced civilization and enjoy more sophisticated technologies. However, we also have to face serious tests posed by problems such as climate change, income inequality and moral degradation. To help mankind tackle the challenges unique to the 21st century, the Tang Prize Foundation set up a Selection Committee composed of professional and fair-minded experts, hoping that by drawing the world’s attention to influential research efforts, more people will be encouraged to commit to their chosen fields and make the world a better place.