Science and Technology

Going Viral

A timeline of milestones and discoveries showing how the U of A built a Canadian centre of excellence in virology research

  • December 07, 2020
  • By Gillian Rutherford

When University of Alberta virologist Michael Houghton won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this year, it was the culmination of three decades of work. From his co-discovery of the hepatitis C virus in 1989 to his ongoing quest for a vaccine, Houghton has helped save millions of lives. And for the U of A, which recruited Houghton 10 years ago to join a team of leading experts, it was the culmination of almost a century of work to build one of Canada’s top centres of excellence in virology research.


The University of Alberta is founded.


U of A medical school begins teaching undergrads who complete their clinical training at other institutions.


The Medical Building comes to life thanks to a grant from the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation and eventually expands to a four-year program in the Faculty of Medicine.


John Colter, ’45 BSc, is appointed head of biochemistry, attracting other young researchers to one of Canada’s first research programs in molecular virology. Among the students Colter inspires is D. Lorne Tyrrell, ’64 BSc, ’68 MD—the visionary behind what would nearly 50 years later become the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology.

D. Lorne Tyrrell is founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology. His research led to the licensing of the first oral antiviral drug to treat chronic hepatitis B infection, lamivudine, in 1998. (Photo: John Ulan)


U of A lands first major Canadian university contract with the pharmaceutical industry. Glaxo Canada funds Morris Robins and D. Lorne Tyrrell’s work to develop antivirals for hepatitis B, the most common liver disease in the world.


U of A hosts the International Congress of Virology in Edmonton, a first for Canada.


Glaxo Heritage Research Institute for virology is launched with provincial, foundation and industry funding, opening the first high-containment research labs in Alberta. New faculty such as HIV expert Lung-Ji Chang and immunologist/dermatologist John Elliott, ’80 BMedSc, ’82 MD, ’87 PhD, are recruited.


Clinical trial of lamivudine, the first oral antiviral agent for hepatitis B, is first reported at the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in Chicago.


Hepatitis B patient receives a successful liver transplant led by Norman Kneteman, ’78 MD, ’85 MSc, at the University of Alberta Hospital and is treated with lamivudine to prevent infection of the transplanted liver. This surgery is a first of its kind worldwide.


The department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology is created through the merger of Medical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases and the Immunology department, with James Smiley joining as chair two years later.


Glaxo receives Health Canada and U.S. FDA approvals for lamivudine. Hepatitis B is the world’s ninth leading killer, with four million new cases each year.


Thanks to major grants and donor support the U of A is one of the top Canadian centres for research in virology.


Norman Kneteman, David F. Mercer, ’92 BMedSc, ’94 MD, ’00 PhD, and D. Lorne Tyrrell develop the first non-primate animal model to support hepatitis C virus replication. The KMT mouse also works for hepatitis B and malaria and was first reported in Nature Medicine in August 2001.


Lorne Babiuk joins the U of A as vice-president (research). An internationally acclaimed virology researcher who developed six vaccines over the course of his career, he is best known for his work to fight rotavirus, leading to the creation of a vaccine for children that saves an estimated 500,000 lives per year.

A world leader in Canadian vaccine research, Lorne Babiuk has developed six vaccines over a career devoted to advancing the health of humans and animals worldwide. (Photo: Richard Siemens)


A team of researchers led by David Evans, ’78 BSc (Hons), ’82 PhD, is awarded federal and provincial funding for the pan-provincial Alberta Institute for Viral Immunology, which is eventually folded into the new Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology.


The antiviral lamivudine is the number one prescribed drug in China due to the prevalence of hepatitis B there, inspiring Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist Li Ka-shing to support virology research in Edmonton.


The Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology opens, uniting an internationally recognized group of researchers studying herpesviruses, flaviviruses, retroviruses and poxviruses, as well as adenovirus, influenza A, hepatitis and rubella virus, with an aim to reduce the burden of viral disease around the world.

The Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Research Innovation was designed as a flexible space to support both current and future research and teaching. (Photo: John Ulan)


Michael Houghton joins the U of A as Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology. As part of the university’s commitment to the federal program, two new Canada Research Chairs are recruited, David Marchant and Maya Shmulevitz, ’96 BSc (Hons), reflecting the next generation of virology researchers.


The Li Ka Shing Institute team tackles one of its first global problems, helping to disprove a new theory that a retrovirus called xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) causes chronic fatigue syndrome.


The U of A’s Biosafety Level (BSL) III high-containment facility opens, one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in Canada, designed for research with pathogens that cause serious or potentially lethal disease, including what is eventually identified as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.


The Applied Virology Institute, a unique commercialization arm of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, opens under the direction of Michael Houghton, seeking to diversify the economy by turning research discoveries into profitable pharmaceutical products. By 2020 the applied institute is developing several treatments ranging from a hepatitis C vaccine to a cancer therapy.


Tom Hobman emerges as a world-renowned expert on Zika virus, which affects newborn infants around the world and threatens the 2016 Rio Olympics.


David Evans and research associate Ryan Noyce create a synthetic horsepox virus using a published genome sequence and DNA fragments. As the largest virus assembled using chemically synthesized DNA to date, it could lead to the development of a more effective vaccine against smallpox.


Michael Good, along with Michael Hawkes, ’01 MD; Greg Tyrrell, ’85 BSc, ’88 MSc; Michael Houghton and D. Lorne Tyrrell, leads a clinical trial for a vaccine against Group A streptococcus, an invasive skin fasciitis that disproportionately affects Indigenous communities and can lead to serious heart problems.


Neurologist Jack Jhamandas, ’74 BSc, ’76 MSc, and a team from the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology use computer modelling and artificial intelligence to discover a new small-molecule drug that is under development to treat Alzheimer's disease.


Matthias Götte and colleagues demonstrate how the broad-spectrum antiviral drug remdesivir works against the Ebola virus.


COVID-19 rapid response begins and U of A researchers are ready, receiving funding support for 181 projects on topics ranging from promising new antiviral drugs to the psychological impacts of the pandemic and how to counter the epidemic of coronavirus-related misinformation.



Matthias Götte demonstrates how the antiviral drug remdesivir works against coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2 in cells. Remdesivir becomes the first antiviral drug approved for the treatment of COVID-19.



David Marchant and his team publish work in Nature identifying the entry receptor for respiratory syncytial virus, a pathogen that kills between 150,000 and 200,000 people every year, mainly children and infants.



Joanne Lemieux publishes on how a feline antiviral drug works against SARS-CoV-2 in cells. The drug heads into Phase 1 clinical trials.



Michael Houghton won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. (Photo: Michael Holly)

Partners make the difference

Over nearly a century, key donors and supporters have helped build excellence in virology at the U of A, including the following, among many others:

Government of Alberta
Alberta Innovates
Government of Canada
Li Ka-shing 
University Hospital Foundation
Rockefeller Foundation