World-renowned virologist named recipient of Gairdner Award

Michael Houghton named recipient of major international award in recognition of groundbreaking research on hepatitis C.

UAlberta News Staff - 20 March 2013

(Edmonton) A world-renowned virologist at the University of Alberta has been named a recipient of the Canada Gairdner International Award, one of the world's most prestigious international awards for biomedical science.

Michael Houghton, the Li Ka Shing Chair of Virology and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology at the U of A, was recognized for his "contributions to the discovery and isolation of the hepatitis C virus" according to the Gairdner Foundation, which announced the seven 2013 Gairdner Award recipients at a breakfast in Toronto on March 20.

Houghton worked with colleagues at the blood diagnostics company Chiron (now part of the pharmaceutical company Novartis) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to first identify the hepatitis C virus in 1989. That initial breakthrough allowed him to develop new blood screening techniques that are now used worldwide to improve patient safety by keeping blood supplies free of the virus.

In February 2012, his team at the U of A showed that a vaccine developed from a single strain of the virus was effective against all known strains-a new breakthrough that shows a single hepatitis C vaccine is possible and could eventually help prevent thousands of Canadians and millions of people around the world from becoming infected each year. An estimated 170 million people worldwide are currently infected with the virus.

Houghton chose to decline the award for personal reasons.

"I am honoured to have been been named a recipient of the prestigious International Gairdner Award for my work on the hepatitis C virus," he said in a statement. "However, I felt that it would be unfair of me to accept this award without the inclusion of two colleagues, Dr. Qui-Lim Choo and Dr. George Kuo. The three of us worked closely together for almost seven years to discover this very elusive and challenging virus using a novel approach in the field of infectious disease. Together, we then went on to develop blood tests that protected the global blood supply, to identify new drug targets that led to the development of new potent therapeutics and to obtain the first evidence for a protective vaccine.

"I congratulate Dr. Harvey Alter and Dr. Daniel Bradley on receiving the International Gairdner Award who along with Dr. Qui-Lim Choo and Dr. George Kuo, have shared previous awards with me for our work on hepatitis C. Above all, I am delighted that our combined work led to blood tests that prevented millions of people getting infected with this virus, that it is also leading to the development of potent new drugs to cure existing patients, and that vaccines are now on the horizon.

"Finally, I would urge every baby boomer in Canada and in the USA to get tested for HCV as recommended by the CDC and the Canadian Liver Foundation since it is known that this age group experiences a high prevalence of infection and many individuals are unaware that they carry the virus, which ultimately can lead to serious liver disease if left untreated."

The Canada Gairdner International Awards are given annually to biomedical scientists who have made original contributions to medicine resulting in increased understanding of human biology and disease. Several researchers who have been named recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in science or medicine.