Nobel Prizes for Science 2020

Physiology and Medicine

Drs Harvey Alter, Micheal Houghton and Charles Rice, jointly received the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for discoveries leading to the identification of Hepatitis C. Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver, mainly caused by a viral infection which has two main types. The first can be transmitted through contaminated food and the second through bodily fluids including blood transfusions. The second type can become chronic, in some cases causing cirrhosis and liver cancer. 

Alter studied post-blood-transfusion hepatitis, observing that a large portion of these cases were not caused by known viruses. Therefore, identifying another possible viral cause of hepatitis. Houghton used the blood of an infected chimpanzee to isolate the genome of hepatitis C. Rice used an RNA variant of hepatitis C to prove this virus alone causes hepatitis. These collective discoveries have massively contributed to the development of blood tests for Hepatitis C, significantly reduced occurrences of post-transfusion hepatitis and greatly improving global health.


The Physics Nobel Prize was awarded to Sir Roger Penrose, Professor Reinhard Genzel and Professor Andrea Ghez for turning black holes from sci-fi into sci-fact. Notably, Ghez made history as the first female astrophysicist to win a Nobel Prize. 

Penrose used Einstein’s theory of general relativity, a mathematical description of gravity, to make a robust prediction that black holes were inevitable. Genzel and Ghez each led a team of astronomers in observing the orbits of the brightest stars around the centre of our galaxy, using infra-red telescopes. Both groups found that the stars were orbiting around an extremely massive, invisible object. Analysis of the data collected showed that the mass of this object must be around 4 million times that of our Sun, whilst taking up a region smaller than our solar system – the only known explanation for this would be the presence of a supermassive black hole.


Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. This method can be used as ‘genetic scissors’ allowing researchers to precisely alter the DNA of living organisms, by removing, adding or altering sections of DNA.

Charpentier studied the immune system of a common bacterium, Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes an array of human diseases. During this, she discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 system which the bacteria use to induce nicks in the DNA of a pathogen to defend the cell. By collaborating with Doudna, they were able to recreate these ‘genetic scissors’ in vitro and reprogram this system to be able to cut any DNA molecule and thus edit the genome of an organism in a short space of time. Their discovery has allowed for the development of genetically modified crops with better yields and are being used in clinical trials of cancer therapies.


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Rosina Poller

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August 2022
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