For U of A Nobel Prize winner Michael Houghton, life-saving science is a team effort

World-leading virologist and hepatitis C virus co-discoverer will speak at virtual fall convocation Nov. 20 and receive an honorary degree in person at a later date.


2020 Nobel Prize winner Michael Houghton will give a virtual address to the U of A's graduating class of 2020 during fall convocation ceremonies Nov. 20. (Photo: Michael Holly)

When Michael Houghton joined the University of Alberta’s vaunted virology group in 2010, he brought with him not only a research pedigree that would one day win him a Nobel Prize, but also a deep dedication to team-building.

His discovery of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) in 1989—and the subsequent development of a test for hepatitis C that would ultimately save millions of lives—was done in a corporate setting in a California startup company, Chiron.

“The discovery of HCV took five or six researchers working in my lab for more than six years, full-time,” remembered Houghton. 

Once everyone believed in the discovery, the company switched over much of its resources to begin making products out of the discovery. Soon there were hundreds of people who were in some way connected with HCV at Chiron Corp.

“That built tremendous team spirit. I think it's nice when people are involved in something like that.”

Houghton, who never misses a chance to mention co-discoverers Qui-Lim Choo, George Kuo and Daniel Bradley, still gets emails from old colleagues reliving the experience and emotion of being involved in something so monumental.

“That’s what we're trying to do at the U of A in the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.”

Finding a way to work toward something you're passionate about, if at all possible in a team environment among those who are equally passionate, is part of the message Houghton said he hopes to impart on graduands at fall convocation ceremonies Nov. 20 in advance of receiving an honorary doctor of science degree from the U of A—his first since winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Oct. 5. Given the virtual convocation ceremony, Houghton’s honorary degree will be conferred in person at a later date when it is safe to do so in accordance with public health guidelines.

“Getting an honorary degree from the U of A means a lot to me. I’ve had a really good 10 years at U of A, and hopefully I’ll have many more,” he said.

On the strength of a promising HCV vaccine, Houghton is hopeful this group will eventually be the backbone of a biomedical startup in the province. He added he also feels the same team spirit that he felt at Chiron three decades earlier welling up now within the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.

“How do you take a finding of a drug that inhibits the viral replication in a cell culture, move it into a clinical program and then commercialize it?” he said.

“That's what the institute is doing for many of its trainees at the U of A and other post-secondaries in Alberta. 

“And I think I've seen them embrace that wholeheartedly.”

U of A chancellor Peggy Garritty, who will be conferring the honorary degree—the university’s highest honour—said she can think of no more fitting a recipient than Houghton.

“Dr. Houghton’s work is the reflection of his and his colleagues’ determination and persistence in tackling hepatitis C, and the result is immeasurable,” she said. 

“Countless lives have been saved. It’s a testament to how critical it is for universities like ours to be world-leading centres of research excellence—places where Dr. Houghton and other scientists can tackle and solve some of the most pressing problems of our time.”

Learn more about the U of A’s fall 2020 convocation, which will include virtual addresses by Nobel Prize winner Michael Houghton and alumnus James Makokis.