Former Emeryville scientist Michael Houghton was among three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday. Houghton was honored for his efforts that led to the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus while an employee of Chiron in 1989. Chiron which was acquired by Novartis in 2005.
Prior to their work, the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained. The blood-borne virus is a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world. All the traditional techniques for virus hunting were put to use but, in spite of this, the virus eluded isolation for over a decade.
Houghton, along with colleagues Qui-Lim Choo, George Kuo and Daniel W. Bradley, undertook the arduous work needed to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus. His team created a collection of DNA fragments from nucleic acids found in the blood of an infected chimpanzee.
The majority of these fragments came from the genome of the chimpanzee itself, but the researchers predicted that some would be derived from the unknown virus. On the assumption that antibodies against the virus would be present in blood taken from hepatitis patients, the investigators used patient sera to identify cloned viral DNA fragments encoding viral proteins.
“In the 80s it was a difficult task we didn’t have the tools available then that we do now,” Houghton recollected his efforts in Emeryville in a telephone interview acknowledging his accomplishment. “It was a lot of effort actually a lot of brute force and just trying to use and apply all the methods available then and we must have tried 30 different approaches at least over seven or eight years and eventually we got one clone after screening probably hundreds of millions of clones.”
Houghton compared his timeline to working on the discovery to Emeryville’s 1980s building boom. “I remember driving to work during those seven or eight years when we were frustrated for so long and watching all these new hotels going up around the institution that I worked at. I was thinking, ‘well they just started this big hotel, I’m sure we would have it by the time it was finished. But no. I think they had to erect about 10 hotels before we finally found it.’ ”
The discovery of 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.
Houghton received his PhD degree in 1977 from King’s College London. He joined G. D. Searle & Company before moving to Chiron’s Emeryville campus in 1982. In 2010 he relocated to University of Alberta and is currently a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology and the Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta where he is also Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.
The Nobel Assembly, consisting of 50 professors at Karolinska Institutet, awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Its Nobel Committee evaluates the nominations. Since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been awarded to scientists who have made the most important discoveries for the benefit of humankind.
Our city is also where Nobel prize winning scientist Kary Mullis pioneered his ground-breaking PCR technique. Mullis passed away last year at the age of 74.
Read the full press release on nobelprize.org.