University of Alberta virologist awarded Nobel Prize

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 (HCV).

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In 1989, Michael Houghton discovered the virus now known as hepatitis C with his colleagues Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo. Because of their discovery, new screening tests were developed for blood donations, and by 1992, the virus was virtually eliminated from blood supplies. By 1996, this screening led to an annual reduction in new hep C infections by more than 80 per cent.

The hepatitis C virus is very virulent. It can lead to cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, and liver cancer for people who carry the virus. To prevent the spread of hepatitis C, the world urgently needs a vaccine. In 2012, Houghton and his team here at the University of Alberta developed a vaccine that is now in late pre-clinical stage testing. Based on the discovery of the virus, antiviral therapies have also been developed that will cure 95 per cent of carriers. This is the first chronic viral illness that can be cured.

Since the outbreak, Dr. Houghton is leading an effort to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. He was successful in creating a vaccine for SARS-CoV-1 in 2004; however, this vaccine was never needed as the original SARS disappeared.

Dr. Houghton was appointed a full professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the U of A Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry on June 1, 2010. His lab is in the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which was created in 2010 through a gift of $25 million from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation as well as a commitment of $52.5 million from the Government of Alberta.

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