A University of Alberta researcher known for his crucial role in identifying the virus that causes hepatitis C has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Michael Houghton, 69, who is director of the university’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Applied Virology in Edmonton, was named a co-recipient of the prize together with two U.S. scientists, Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice.
Each of the three scientists will receive an equal share of the $1.2-million prize for their part in a discovery that is credited with preventing millions of infections, by making it possible to screen for the virus in human blood and blood products. Hepatitis C is a chronic liver disease that causes 400,000 deaths annually.
“It’s hard to find something that’s of such a benefit to mankind as we’re awarding this year,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Committee, after announcing the prize on Monday in Stockholm.
Dr. Houghton was born in London and was first drawn to microbiology after reading about Louis Pasteur. He earned his first degree at the University of East Anglia in England and completed his PhD in biochemistry at King’s College London in 1977.
In 1982, Dr. Houghton moved to the California-based Chiron Corp., now part of the biopharmaceutical company Novartis, where he conducted his Nobel-winning research. He came to the University of Alberta in 2010 as one of the inaugural holders of a Canada Excellence Research Chair. The seven-year position was part of an effort at the time to draw top science talent to Canada.
Since then, Dr. Houghton, who divides his time between Canada and the United States, has been affiliated with the Edmonton university, and is a prominent member of its institute of virology. This year he was also the recipient of a $750,000 federal grant to work on a vaccine for COVID-19.
Lorne Tyrell, who heads up the larger institute that Dr. Houghton’s team is part of, noted that the Nobel win is the first for a medical researcher working in Canada since Frederick Banting and John Macleod were awarded the prize in 1923 for the discovery of insulin.
“We’ve waited a long time, so thank you very much Michael,” said Dr. Tyrell during an online press briefing with Dr. Houghton.
It was Dr. Tyrell who first reached Dr. Houghton in California to tell him about his Nobel win, after seeing the announcement during a pre-dawn webcast from Sweden.
He added that Canadians should be grateful to Dr. Houghton and his colleagues for identifying a virus that, together with HIV, was responsible for the tainted blood scandal that ultimately infected 30,000 blood transfusion recipients in Canada with hepatitis C and another 2,000 with HIV-AIDS during the 1980s.
The team’s work, he said, “has made blood safe for the whole world.”
The discovery of the hepatitis C virus began in the mid-1970s when Dr. Alter, who was then at the National Institute of Health at Bethesda, Md., realized that an unknown agent was transmitting hepatitis through blood transfusions. At that time, both the A and B varieties of the disease had been identified and could be excluded as a cause. In 1978, Dr. Alter and his colleagues found they could transmit a third form of the disease to chimpanzees, and showed that the infectious agent was likely a previously unrecognized virus.
Dr. Houghton’s team at Chiron took up the challenge of tracking down and identifying the virus by making use of the newly available tools of molecular biology. In a scientific tour de force, the team sifted through blood samples from infected animals to collect fragments of the viral genome. They also found that human patients produced antibodies that could be used to help identify and then clone the virus’s genetic sequence. Based on this discovery, the team was able to develop a test that could be used to identify the presence of the virus in donated blood.
The breakthrough ultimately reduced the risk of acquiring hepatitis C through blood transfusion from one in three to about one in two million.
The third piece of the puzzle fell into place when Dr. Rice and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis identified a key region of the viral genome that helped show it was the virus alone that was the cause of hepatitis C.
During Monday’s briefing, Dr. Houghton recounted that it took seven years to find the virus at a time when other teams had tried but failed to do so, and then another two to three years to develop the tests that could protect blood supplies.
“An important lesson that I’ve learned is that if you want to solve major problems, you’ve really got to be persistent and you’ve got to have suitable funding for that period of time,” he said.
Dr. Houghton has continued to work on hepatitis C and has more recently developed a vaccine which has proved successful in animal studies and which he said is now on track to advance to human clinical trials.
While hepatitis C can be treated with antivirals, a vaccine would substantially reduce the global burden of the disease and its toll on human life.
“The history of infectious disease teaches us that to control an epidemic you have to have a vaccine,” he said.
Turning to his work on COVID-19, he said Canada had managed to handle the pandemic “extremely well,” but that the disease has exposed a deficit in the country’s vaccine production capabilities.
Dr. Houghton, who has received a number of other awards for his work, has long indicated that Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo, his close collaborators at Chiron, as well as Daniel Bradley, an Arizona-based researcher who was formerly with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, are deserving of recognition, too, for their contributions to the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.
In 2013, he told The Globe and Mail that he had felt conflicted when he and Dr. Alter alone received the prestigious Lasker Award in 2000. That year, he declined the Canada Gairdner International Award when he, Dr. Alter and Dr. Bradley were named co-winners but not Dr. Choo and Dr. Kuo. Dr. Houghton said he had been unable to persuade the Gairdner Foundation to increase the number of winners.
“I was trying to influence how awards are given,” Dr. Houghton said. “Unfortunately it got to the point where there were some strong feelings on both sides.”
On Monday, Dr. Houghton said he thought it would be “too presumptuous” to turn down a Nobel, which, unlike the Gairdners and many other science prizes, are awarded publicly before the recipients have been informed of their honour.
“I don’t think it’s feasible to discuss that kind of thing with them,” he added.
Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896, did not specify how many recipients could win each of the awards given in his name when he laid out instructions for the prizes in his will.
In 1968, the Nobel Committee formally adopted the rule that a maximum of three people can share any of the prizes in any given year. The only exception is the Nobel Peace Prize which is sometimes awarded collectively to organizations or political entities rather than to named individuals.
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