Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology

Researchers at the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology are working to discover new methods to prevent, treat and cure virus-related disease and reduce the burden of viral disease around the world.

13 October 2017

The Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology was created in 2010 through a $28-million gift from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation. At the time, Mr. Li's gift was the largest gift in the University of Alberta's history. Hepatitis B is the most common disease in China, and it was alumnus and former dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Lorne Tyrrell, who personally sought out Mr. Li to pitch his idea of funding a world-class virology institute at the U of A.

Today, the Li Ka Shing institute of Virology is connected with global partners such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Helmholtz Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Applied Virology Institute, under the direction of Michael Houghton, seeks to bring the benefits of discovery research to patients worldwide.

Expert commentary: Canada needs hepatitis C blood screening, national strategy

Two leading authorities in viral hepatitis research argue more co-ordination is needed between provinces

By Michael Houghton and Lorne Tyrrell

An estimated 250,000 Canadians today are carrying a hidden time bomb-the hepatitis C virus, or HCV, a disease spread largely through blood contact and intravenous drug use. HCV attacks the liver and greatly increases the risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer, liver transplants and even death.

Canada started screening our blood supply for the virus in 1990, but tens of thousands of Canadians were infected through blood transfusions prior to the screening. The rate is higher for those born between 1945 and 1975.

According to the Canadian Liver Foundation, 80 per cent of Canadians in this age bracket are unaware of their increased risk of infection, and only 25 per cent have been tested.

The United States was the first country in the world to recommend HCV blood screening specifically for baby boomers. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, France, Germany and Australia have either screening programs or screening guidelines.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has yet to follow suit with screening recommendations for boomers.

The tragedy is that hepatitis C should stand among our greatest medical and scientific triumphs. Since it was discovered in 1989, research advances have led to antiviral treatments capable of curing more than 95 per cent of patients. Our own work continues at the U of A to develop the world's first vaccine against all seven major genotypes of the hepatitis C virus, with Phase 1 clinical trials expected to begin in 2018.

Yet all the scientific advances in the world cannot make up for the absence of a concrete national strategy with a core emphasis on education, testing, prevention and timely and affordable access to treatment. According to the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, unless we take action, we can expect 32,460 individuals infected with HCV will die from liver complications by 2035 and the total health-care costs associated with chronic HCV will rise by 60 per cent.

Here in Alberta, a recent analysis prepared for Alberta Health estimates that screening boomers and the general population represents "good value for money" in terms of quality-adjusted life years, a measure of disease burden. Screening and treating the entire HCV-infected population in this province would cost $253 million; screening and treating just boomers is estimated at $134 million and represents a reasonable place to start. These costs pale in comparison with what's at stake.

This op-ed was originally published in longer form on the University of Alberta news website July 28, 2016―World Hepatitis Day. It has been condensed for republication.