U of A Nobel winner says COVID-19 proves we've been too 'blasé' about virus research
Virologist Michael Houghton and 2 colleagues take home Nobel Prize in Medicine for hepatitis C discovery
The University of Alberta scientist who won a Nobel for his work discovering hepatitis C says governments need to invest more in basic research to prevent another global pandemic.
Dr. Michael Houghton, a British-born virologist, says one of the reasons the pandemic hit so hard is that governments and scientists had become "a bit blasé over the last several decades that we know how to stop viral infections."
Houghton on Monday won the Nobel Prize in Medicine, alongside U.S. colleagues Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice, for their work discovering hepatitis C, a virus that causes liver disease and affects millions worldwide.
He is currently working on research to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.
What was it like to get that call at 3 a.m.?
I actually got it from a colleague at the University of Alberta.... He had seen it on the wire services and internet, and he called me and told me Nobel had been trying to get hold of me without success, apparently.
What happened? Were you sleeping through the phone calls?
No, I had my phone on right next to my bed, and somehow they weren't able to connect. I don't know why. But obviously I did connect with the Nobel committee later on. So everything's fine.
We know that the discovery of hepatitis C virus was long coming, over decades. And different people who are receiving this award contributed to that. Though, as you know, [there are] many more people in the background who also did that. But tell us a bit about your breakthrough in 1989.
I started working on it at a biotech company in California in 1982. And as you said, we discovered it in 1989.
We were using molecular biological approaches that were available then, and they were very powerful. But unfortunately, hepatitis C is present still at very low levels relative to normal liver proteins and blood proteins. So really, the methods we were applying were not sensitive enough.
And so we were forever trying to improve sensitivity and trying different approaches. We must have tried 30 or 40 different approaches over seven years. We must have screened hundreds of millions of what we call recombinant clones in that period.
And eventually, after seven years, we found one. One very tiny little clone. It was not really a eureka moment. We had to continually put the clones through a series of tests. And after about eight rounds of that, we convinced ourselves, "My word; we've actually got it. We can't believe it."
And then interestingly, it took about another year for the field in general to believe us that we really did have it.
As you say, it wasn't a eureka moment, but it was a breakthrough. And what was the significance of that?
Several million people around the world are infected with hep C, according to the World Health Organization. Around 400,000 people are dying every year. And so I think the first thing that we were able to do is to develop blood tests, not just to diagnose patients, but to protect the blood supply around the world. So that stopped millions of infections through getting transfusions and so forth.
And then after 20 odd years, in a collaboration between the academic field and the pharmacological industry and entities like [the U.S. National Institutes of Health], eventually some really good drugs were developed.
But like any epidemics, ultimately you need a vaccine to stop it and prevent it and to eradicate it. And so that's the big thrust now, trying to get a vaccine to go against hep C.
We've stopped polio, essentially, or nearly stopped it, around the world. We curbed TB with vaccines. And I think we became a bit of overcasual that we could deal with this easily. And I think, obviously, we've learned we cannot.- Michael Houghton, University of Alberta virologist
Lots of people are talking today about the significance of this Nobel Prize going to you and the other scientists at a time when we're trying to find a vaccine, a treatment, for COVID-19, which you're also involved in. What does this say?
I think we do have the real possibility of eradicating hep C from the planet. We obviously need a vaccine to get approved, which will probably take five to 10 years from now.
And, of course, that's what we need with COVID. Very quickly, we need a vaccine to prevent the infection cycle and to basically inhibit the virus around the world.
So I think the world today, along with the COVID efforts to develop a vaccine, just emphasize, I think, to all governments around the world that we need more investment in virology, in infectious disease and immunology at the basic research level, but also we need to invest in translating it fast.
I think many people in Canada, including myself, believe we have to beef up manufacturing capacity. Because research in Canada is very good, but you need to be able to translate it into making vaccines, blood tests, therapeutics for Canadians.
I think we became a bit blasé over the last several decades that we know how to stop viral infections. We've stopped polio, essentially, or nearly stopped it, around the world. We curbed TB [tuberculosis] with vaccines. And I think we became a bit of overcasual that we could deal with this easily. And I think, obviously, we've learned we cannot.
You turned down a prize, a Canadian prize, the Gairdner Award, because it failed to recognize the work of two of your former colleagues. Are you planning to accept the Nobel committee, or is it the same thing here?
If you look at the history of their awards, they had given the prize to multiple individuals, more than three. And so I felt strongly that my work on the discovery was done with two critical people, Dr. [George] Kuo and Dr. [Qui-Lim] Choo.
But unfortunately, they refused and it got a little bit heated, and so I decided to walk away.
The regulations for the Nobel Prize have been in operation for over 100 years. And in part, those regulations come from Alfred Nobel's will. You know, he left instructions on how the prize would be given, and they do not give it to more than three people, and they never have.
It would be nice if they would change the rules. But it wasn't up to me to begin to debate with the Nobel and who they should give it to. I didn't feel that was appropriate.
I was noticing in some of the research that in 1988, your fellow prize winner, Harvey Alter, he wrote a short poem about the efforts to discover the hepatitis C virus. And he said, "Let us see this elusive virus/If we don't publish soon,/They're going to fire us!" ... I mean, the whole world is waiting to see if there can be a vaccine against COVID-19. How much pressure do you feel?
I have a small grant to work on a COVID vaccine, but I don't have one that enables me to translate it — in other words, manufacture it under [good manufacturing practices] standards required for clinical trials and then to do a clinical trial.
So my effectiveness on COVID vaccinology is going to be mainly at the level of research. I'm trying to figure out what is the best fragment of the spike protein of the virus to use in a vaccine.
And then secondly, we're going to be trying to figure out, well, can we make a vaccine to COVID, but also any future outbreaks of coronavirus?
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.