“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, we thought we had pretty much conquered infectious disease,” wryly notes Michael Houghton, Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Virology at the U of A. But then came HIV and SARS, new pandemic influenza strains and an awakening to the damage wrought by hepatitis viruses. Any sense of complacency was shattered, and the war on viral diseases was stepped up. Fresh efforts were made to understand exactly how viruses are able to enter cells and hijack their reproductive capability.
British-born Houghton is a veteran of the war against viral disease. In 1989, working with colleagues at the California-based biotechnology company Chiron, he was the first to identify the hepatitis C virus. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Houghton, recalling the seven-year search for the virus, which infects more than 170 million people around the world, including 300,000 Canadians. This year, more than 15,000 people in North America will die from hepatitis C, which can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is most readily spread through blood, so once the virus was identified, Houghton was able to develop a blood-screening test to protect patients who receive blood transfusions. Previously, those receiving a blood transfusion had a one-in-20 chance of contracting hepatitis C. “Now the risk is so low we can hardly measure it,” says Houghton. Since developing the blood-screening test, Houghton has been working on a vaccine for hepatitis C.
When the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology was created at the U of A in 2010, Houghton accepted the CERC in virology and came to Alberta to continue his quest for a vaccine. “The virology and immunology work being done at this university is outstanding. It’s one of the best departments of its kind in the world,” he says. Lorne Babiuk
Houghton’s work since accepting the CERC has already led to a major breakthrough. In February 2012, he revealed at a CERC summit in Vancouver that a vaccine prototype developed in collaboration with his research associate, John Law, is capable of causing an immune response.
Now Houghton and his team at the Li Ka Shing Institute are testing an augmented version of the vaccine in a group of Canadians with the highest risk of contracting hepatitis C—intravenous drug users.
Houghton’s huge step toward a hepatitis C vaccine is the latest of several important contributions U of A researchers have made to the advancement of virology, including John S. Colter, Lorne Tyrrell, Norm Kneteman and David Mercer, and Lorne Babiuk.
Houghton has also begun to explore the possible involvement of viruses in a variety of diseases not firmly linked to viral infections—conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis. “There are probably viruses causing a lot more disease than we currently know about,” he says.
“To be able to affect human health positively has always been my goal,” says Houghton. Through groundbreaking research at the U of A, he and his colleagues waging the war on viruses are doing just that.
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