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Michael Houghton, who holds a $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chair in virology at the University of Alberta, has surprised the Gairdner Foundation by becoming the first person to decline their prize in its 54-year history.MICHAEL HOLLY/The Canadian Press

When the latest winners of Canada's most prestigious international science prize were named in Toronto, one question was buzzing in the background: Why would someone turn it down?

Michael Houghton, who holds a $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chair in virology at the University of Alberta, had apparently surprised the Gairdner Foundation by being the first person to decline the prize in its 54-year history.

Dr. Houghton, who was not at the ceremony on Wednesday, said he could not accept the Gairdner because two close collaborators were not being similarly recognized. Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo worked with Dr. Houghton at Chiron Corporation, a California biotech company, when they identified and cloned the hepatitis C virus. The discovery has since led to screening tests that have reduced the risk of acquiring HCV through blood transfusion from one in three to about one in two million.

Dr. Houghton has previously been recognized for this work and in 2000 accepted the Lasker award, the highest U.S.-based award in the life sciences. Neither Dr. Choo nor Dr. Kuo were named as co-winners on that occasion. However, Dr. Houghton maintains he did not apply a double standard in choosing not to accept the Canadian award, but rather did not want to relive the conflict he felt after accepting the Lasker.

"I agonized over it," Dr. Houghton said. "And I decided I didn't want to do that again."

Five international research prizes are awarded each year by the Gairdner Foundation, which has a track record of anticipating future Nobel Prize winners. A sixth prize recognizes contributions in global health while a seventh is reserved for a Canadian researcher who shows exceptional leadership in medical science. Each prize is worth $100,000.

This year, the Canadian prize went to James Hogg, a pathologist and emeritus professor at the University of British Columbia who transformed research in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) over a career spanning nearly half a century.

Dr. Houghton's award was to be one of three that together spotlight a chain of key discoveries relating to HCV during the 1970s and '80s. The other two winners are Harvey Alter, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and Daniel Bradley at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Dr. Houghton praised the work of both men but said Dr. Choo and Dr. Kuo were also deserving.

"I would have liked to have seen him receive the award, but I respect his decision," said Lorne Tyrrell, who is both director of the University of Alberta's Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which recruited Dr. Houghton, and also chairman of the Gairdner Foundation board of directors.

Dr. Tyrrell said he excused himself from internal discussions over the matter but felt "extremely conflicted" by it.

Controversy over how science prizes apportion credit is not new. In 1923, for example, Frederick Banting ended up splitting his Nobel Prize winnings with insulin co-discoverer, Charles Best, whom the Nobel committee had overlooked.

In Britain, rules for the newly established Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering specifies that – like the Nobels – only three people may share the prize in a given year. Yet when the prize was awarded for the first time on Monday, the rule was immediately broken and the prize was split among five Internet pioneers.

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