Photo of Michael Houghton
Photo by Michael Holly


In Conversation: Michael Houghton

The Nobel laureate talks about persistence, post-COVID-19 virology and when 'the thinking' happens

By Kate Black, ’16 BA

December 21, 2020 •

Back in 2004, Michael Houghton developed a successful vaccine for SARS-CoV-1 that never had to be used. The virus died out on its own, and the vaccine was never mass-produced or stockpiled. If it was, however, the vaccine could have been used to save lives in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a major lesson, Houghton says, in the importance of learning from science breakthroughs of the past — and just one of the takeaways he shared in a livestreamed conversation with science journalist, Dan Riskin, ’97 BSc, on Dec. 9. That morning, Health Canada approved the first COVID-19 vaccine for use across the country. 

Houghton, director of the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute, was recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus in 1989. The award tops off Houghton’s world-leading career in virology, including his work on a vaccine against the very virus he discovered and to produce a vaccine for COVID-19. Riskin, who earned a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015, crowdsourced questions from among the event’s 3,000-plus viewers. Over the course of the conversation, Houghton shared insights from decades of going up against the most challenging viruses of our time. 

I want to start by going back to the 1980s. The world is faced with this mysterious illness and you’re hunting for its cause. Is your strategy to think about it in a way that nobody ever has before? Or do you apply the scientific method and bang your head against the wall the same way everybody else does and then somehow luck into finding the solution? 

Hepatitis B was discovered in the 1960s and hepatitis A was discovered in the early ’70s. For the next 15 years, people around the world tried to use the methods that were successful for discovering hepatitis A and B, but they failed. I started in 1982. I think what was different about our approach was applying modern-at-the-time molecular biological approaches to the problem. We thought if we applied molecular biology, gene-cloning, recombinant DNA and allied technologies to the problem, we might get success.

Screen capture image of Dan Riskin and Michael Houghton talking
Dan Riskin (left) sourced his questions for Michael Houghton (right) from the U of A community.

Has your approach changed very much since the days when you were working on that problem?

It’s changed a lot. It took us seven years to identify the virus in the ’80s. If we were doing it today, it probably would take seven weeks. But that’s because we did it before the routine use of polymerase chain reaction, which is an incredibly powerful molecular biological tool, and before the advent of deep sequencing. It’s just an example of how technology can make a huge difference.  

Does it all make you look back and say, “Man, seven years of my life — if only I’d started on this a little later, I could have gotten onto other things?” Or do you feel like that hard work just had to be done?

I did think about that for a few seconds, but then I realized it was worth all the pain and the effort and the disappointment. It quickly led to the development of blood tests and diagnostics, which stopped so much post-transfusion hepatitis C. It enabled the field of hepatitis C research to really begin in a big way.

In terms of your process, where does the thinking happen? Is it something that happens when you’re sitting at the lab bench and you’re pipetting? Or is it when you’re at the whiteboard with your colleagues during a lab meeting?

Usually, it happens while interacting with other scientists and usually not at formal meetings. It’s when you’re having a cup of coffee or tea and you’re talking about a baseball game or a cricket match, and you then turn around to work. In my experience, those are the best and most fertile discussions — when two or three minds connect and stimulate each other to come up with a new avenue. That’s really what we did for seven years. We tried many different avenues to try to solve the problem and, thankfully, one of them worked.

And it did take seven years to find the hepatitis C virus. I can imagine when you’re in year six of that, you’re pretty frustrated. How do you deal with those setbacks?

Ultimately, you have to believe in the aim, which is to find a major virus that is causing disease all over the world. I think I considered those pressures to be small compared with how important it would be if we could solve the problem.

Today, Canada announced that they’ve approved a COVID-19 vaccine. Everyone’s blown away that this took less than a year. Is there something about COVID-19 that made that a little easier, or are the technologies just really that much more advanced? Is this a pace that we should expect in the future with other kinds of diseases or was there something about COVID-19 that we lucked into that people don’t realize?

There are a few factors. One is the new RNA and adeno technologies — those have never been used before to get a human vaccine approved but they’ve been able to move faster than our existing technologies. And the great incidence of COVID infection actually enabled efficacy testing to be done very quickly. Then, governments basically de-risked the vaccine development for companies by buying vaccines upfront, as Canada did. Also, the virus cooperated. There are some very hard viruses to make vaccines against, like HIV and hepatitis C. 

Speaking of vaccines, one of your great accomplishments was developing a vaccine for SARS, the original SARS-CoV-1. But of course, that never got rolled out because that disease got wiped out. How effective might that vaccine for SARS have been in the early days against COVID-19?

This is one of the major lessons, I think, of the COVID pandemic: If we and other companies had actually produced the vaccine against the SARS 2003 strain and stockpiled it, we could have used it to prevent a lot of the disease and fatalities of COVID. Papers published this year have shown that antibodies to the SARS 2003 strain cross-neutralize the COVID-19 virus pretty well. It’s very expensive to make vaccines for human use, but COVID has taught us we need to do this. At the U of A, we’re planning to do that with our own COVID vaccine. 

I know that the future is very hard to predict but do you have any insights, especially with the news today that Health Canada has approved this vaccine. Do you have any advice on what we might expect or what we should look for?

I think the news is very good and it’s very optimistic. I would reassure everyone that it has been looked at very carefully by Health Canada. It’s safe and will benefit the community enormously. Vaccines are the greatest health-care product in the world in terms of what they deliver for the cost. I think we’re going to have a number of good vaccines to use against COVID and I urge everyone to take them as soon as they’re offered to you.

Do you have any final thoughts that you want to leave this audience with? This will be the last time you get to speak before you’re officially awarded this Nobel Prize tomorrow — these are special words!

The oil and gas industry has been very important to Alberta, and it will be in the future, but I think we all appreciate that we need alternate industries. I’ve seen biotechnology really enhance the economy of the U.K. and the U.S. My message to Alberta is to keep investing in life sciences and health sciences. We can make Alberta a major global player in biotechnology and it will benefit all Albertans as well as Canadians. I truly believe that.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can watch Michael Houghton and Dan Riskin’s full conversation on YouTube

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