Professor Michael Houghton (Tyson’s 1962-68) shares the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded for 2020 for his work on the Hepatitis C virus.
Michael (Mike) Houghton would have become a chartered accountant if he had followed his father’s advice. Instead, a book about Louis Pasteur that he found in Bexleyheath Reference Library in 1967 put him on the path to becoming one of the world’s leading researchers in his field and now a Nobel Prize laureate. He shares the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice for ‘their decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world.’ This Nobel Prize is awarded annually for a discovery of major importance in life science or medicine that is of great benefit for humankind.
The discovery of the Hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives. Michael Houghton’s painstaking work carried out over many years eventually isolated the genetic sequence of the virus in 1989. This showed it was a type of flavivirus and was named Hepatitis C. In a recent radio interview, Professor Houghton explained “We had limited tools available to us then, so it was rather like searching for a needle in a haystack. The amount of virus present in the liver and the blood was very low, and the sensitivity of our techniques was not high enough, so we were sailing very close to the wind all the time. We tried a lot of methods, probably 30 or 40 different methodological approaches over seven years, and eventually one worked.”
Professor Houghton won a scholarship to study at the University of East Anglia from where he graduated with a degree in biological sciences in 1972, and subsequently completed his PhD in biochemistry at King’s College London in 1977. He moved to the United States in 1982 and it was while working there for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron that he completed the ground-breaking research which has earned him this recent accolade. He was recruited by the University of Alberta in 2010 where he is currently Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology and Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology and also Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute. In 2013, Houghton’s team at the University of Alberta showed that a vaccine derived from a single strain of Hepatitis C was effective against all strains of the virus. As of 2020 the vaccine is in pre-clinical trials.
On Covid he says “You cannot stop an epidemic as large as [Hepatitis C] or Covid[-19] just with good therapy — you absolutely have to have a vaccine to really curb the transmission across the world. I think the world today, along with the COVID efforts to develop a vaccine, just emphasize(s)… 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 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, obviously, we’ve learned we cannot.”
The full article on Michael Houghton first appeared in the Autumn 2020 EAC Magazine
Illustration © Nobel Media. III. Niklas Elmehed