Nobel Prize winner talks pandemic prevention, biotech future with Edmonton City Council

Nobel Prize-winning University of Alberta professor Dr. Michael Houghton came to the nucleus of municipal democracy in Edmonton with this message: science is the answer to the tragic human cost of pandemics.

“The answer to all of these problems, these viral infectious diseases, lies with science,” Houghton told a physically distanced meeting of Edmonton City Council. 

“Science doesn’t fail us. It has once again come to our rescue with COVID with the rapid evolution of very new technologies to develop vaccines.” 

Dr. Houghton’s Nobel is the first time in 97 years that an academic at a Canadian university has won the prestigious honour.

“Many fine minds” at U of A

Houghton, a virologist at the University of Alberta, spoke via the internet as Council formally recognized and celebrated his Nobel Prize. He and two fellow researchers won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the hepatitis C virus in 1989. 

The breakthrough, made in Houghton’s laboratory, triggered blood tests used around the world to prevent transmission of hep C from blood donations. After two more decades of work between academics, the private sector and public health officials, antiviral medication to cure hep C patients was developed. 

Nobel happened here, in Edmonton

“I’m particularly pleased I got it while I’m working at the University of Alberta,” said Houghton of the prize. 

“There are many fine minds and I see, in the time I’ve been there, a willingness to translate their science into social benefits. I see that all the time.” 

Houghton and his team at the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Applied Virology have developed a vaccine for hep C that is now in pre-clinical testing. The team is also leading an effort to produce a vaccine for COVID-19.

It’s the first time in almost a century that an academic at a Canadian university has won the Nobel Prize. Houghton has been at the University of Alberta for a decade.

“The fact that this happened right here, in Edmonton, at the University of Alberta, should make all of us all tremendously proud,” said Mayor Don Iveson. 

Dr. Houghton and his team at the U of A’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Applied Virology have developed a vaccine for hepatitis C that is now in pre-clinical testing.

“…we could have prevented most of the deaths and most of the disease from COVID-19.”

Dr. Michael Houghton

How to prevent future pandemics?

Houghton said pandemics occur at regular intervals.

Hep C is a pandemic. He also mentioned HIV, West Nile, pandemic influenza, SARS in 2003 and now COVID.

Houghton used the SARS example to draw a sombre lesson about the need to stockpile vaccines. 

“If we had made a vaccine against the SARS strain in 2003, if we had made it at the high quality required for human use, and if we had stockpiled it, we could have prevented most of the deaths and most of the disease from COVID-19,” he said. 

Vaccines for the 2003 SARS strain neutralize the infectivity of COVID-19, he said. 

Besides stockpiling, Houghton said more money for research and for translating research into products is needed. As well, he praised the World Health Organization for working properly in Wuhan, China, to figure out public health measures to prevent future pandemics.

Mayor Don Iveson, City Council Chamber, Edmonton February 8, 2021.

Biotechnology here 

Houghton also shared a vision for biotechnology manufacturing in the city and province.

“Not only to deal with COVID and the variants that are emerging, but, it looks like, to me, we will need annual boosters for the next several years against COVID, but, also, obviously, to be prepared for the new pandemics which will occur,” he said. 

“I think working together with you all, we’re trying to make Alberta a world class centre for biotechnology.” 

Houghton said he saw first-hand how the United Kingdom and the Bay Area of California developed biotechnology expertise. 

“The University of Alberta, with its intellect and its experience, can really generate a vibrant biotech industry,” he said. “I know that’s what you’re trying to do, Mayor, with Health City and we certainly are looking forward to working with you to achieve success.”

The High Level Bridge lit in University of Alberta colours, Dec. 9, 2020.

“I quite enjoy Canadian winters” 

Houghton, who is based in California, thanked the City for lighting the High Level Bridge in University of Alberta colours last year when the Nobel Prize was announced. 

“I was very grateful for that, especially as I have walked over that bridge many times in mid-winter, and, having the lights switched on was a kind of revenge for the minus 40°C weather I have endured on that wonderful bridge.” 

“In truth, I quite enjoy the Canadian winters,” Houghton added. “They are unique, and I have enjoyed the experience.” 

“The University of Alberta…can really generate a vibrant biotech industry. I know that’s what you’re trying to do.”

Dr. Michael Houghton

Special guests

On the video link were a host of special guests, including high-profile friends and colleagues Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, Leeann Tyrrell, Dr. Sandra Vanzanten, Dr. Khaled Barakat, Imam Barakat, Bill Flanagan,  President of the University of Alberta, Elan MacDonald, Vice President of External Relations, Alexis Kziaskiewicz, Associate Vice President of Government and Community Relations, Dr. Brenda Hemmelgarn, Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and Catherine Swindlehurst, Chief of Staff to the President.

There was also a class of Grade 4 students from Greenfield Elementary School, who are studying at City Hall School. They shared their thoughts on Houghton’s Nobel Prize with Transforming Edmonton.

Mr. Craig Roberge, teacher: “I am so proud to take part in recognizing such dedicated and committed work.”

Matthew: “He never gave up and now there could be a vaccine.”

Cheyenne: “It’s very cool that the team solved a big problem. This is encouraging me to want to be a scientist.”

Emery-Theo: “You have to keep trying and trying and failing until you get it.”

Sakura: “It’s very exciting that there has been a solution.”

Chloe: “Knowing that he has saved thousands of people’s lives makes me happy. He deserves to be recognized today by my city.”

A physically distanced meeting of Edmonton City Council during the protocol item honouring Dr. Michael Houghton, February 8, 2021.

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post is courtesy of the University of Alberta. We have more to read about Houghton and the importance he places on persistence, and there’s more from the University of Alberta in accounts of Houghton’s Nobel Prize victory.