Michael Houghton, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology
Breakthroughs in Hepatitis Prevention and Therapy
The hepatitis B and C viruses, particularly as spread through ways other than transfusion, still represent major health problems in Canada and around the world, despite significant advancements in blood-screening techniques. In Canada, it is estimated that there are 300,000 carriers of each hepatitis B (HBV) and C (HCV). Worldwide, these numbers have reached 350 million and 170 million, respectively.
Currently, there is no vaccine for HCV, and existing treatment methods only work for about half of infected patients. While there is a vaccine to prevent HBV, patients with a chronic infection often need to stay on long-term anti-viral treatments that lead to drug-resistance and ultimately end in permanent liver damage.
Building on the knowledge he gained while making his breakthrough discovery of the virus that causes HCV, and his identification of the hepatitis D viral genome, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology Michael Houghton will work to develop low-cost prophylactic vaccines against HCV, and therapeutic vaccines against HBV.
Through experimental trials using chimeric mice with human liver, as well as through woodchuck infection models, Houghton hopes to improve current HBV treatment methods and significantly reduce how long treatment takes.
Another major focus of Houghton’s work will be using his experience in virus discovery to investigate a potential infectious basis for various human diseases that have so far remained uncharacterized.
Houghton’s commitment to developing low-cost vaccines could have enormous benefits for hepatitis sufferers across the globe, including in Canada, helping them overcome these diseases and reducing the costs and impacts of HBV and HCV on both sufferers and the health-care system. Joining a prestigious team of internationally recognized virologists, immunologists and molecular biologists at the University of Alberta, Houghton and his research team will maintain Canada’s pioneering position in biomedicine. His move from industry to academia will also allow him to train a new generation of researchers equipped for careers in academia or the biotechnology industry.
Dr. Michael Houghton is an internationally recognized expert in hepatitis virology. Along with fellow researchers at world-leading blood diagnostics company Chiron (now part of the multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis) and the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he was the first to successfully identify and clone the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The breakthrough allowed him to develop new blood-screening tests able to detect the virus. These techniques are now used worldwide to keep patients safe by ensuring that blood supplies are HCV-free. His work also led to the identification of important new drug targets for hepatitis C, which are being pursued by many groups around the world.
Houghton holds a PhD in biochemistry from King’s College London. Before accepting the position of Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology at the University of Alberta, he was chief scientific officer at Epiphany Biosciences in California. Previously, he spent 25 years in a distinguished career at Chiron, ultimately serving as vice-president of HCV and virology research. In 2000, Houghton received the enormously prestigious Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award for his work at Chiron.
Houghton’s extensive publishing credits include more than 200 articles spanning topics critical to human health, including gene regulation, human beta interferons (proteins produced to interfere with the spread of viral infections) and hepatitis C and D viruses. He also holds numerous patents on recombinant human interferons, bacterial expression plasmids and on diagnostics, drug targets and vaccines for hepatitis C and D viruses.
His current research interests include developing preventative and therapeutic hepatitis vaccines and exploring an infectious basis for other major human diseases.
“Michael Houghton’s discovery of the hepatitis C virus is one of the most significant biomedical breakthroughs in the last 20 years. His work is the foundation of research to improve and save the lives of millions of people around the world. Having him as part of our already impressive team of scientists and the establishment of the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology together propel the University of Alberta to the forefront of research into virus-based diseases.” —Indira Samarasekera, president, University of Alberta
Research chair says province sitting on biotech ‘gold mine’ (Folio, December 2012)
Sweating the small stuff (New Trail, August 2012)
Hep C vaccine breakthrough (UAlberta News, February 2012)
The hunt for hepatitis C (UAlberta News, September 2010)
Contact Michael Houghton