Contributed photo to Red Deer Advocate

Contributed photo to Red Deer Advocate

How an Alberta researcher’s discovery of hepatitis C led to the Nobel Prize and saved lives

Hepatitis C infection led to an estimated 400,000 deaths in 2016

By John Bergeron, Emeritus Robert Reford Professor and Professor of Medicine, McGill University

This year, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to virologists Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and biochemist Michael Houghton for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. This recognition is yet a further testimonial of the need for discovery research to address the ravages of viral disease.

Hepatitis C infection led to an estimated 400,000 deaths in 2016. Similar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, hepatitis C is an RNA virus. However, hepatitis C enters the body through the blood stream, where it then attacks the liver to lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C virus, but the basic science discoveries of the Nobel laureates have contributed to the development of antiviral drugs.

Chimpanzee No. 910

In 1989, Houghton — alongside biochemist Qui-Lim Choo, geneticist Amy Weiner and virologists George Kuo, Lacy Overby and Daniel Bradley — reported the discovery of a new virus they named hepatitis C. At the time, nothing was known about this virus.

So, how did the researchers go about deciphering experimental information to come up with the identification of a new virus? The team infected chimpanzees with serum from a patient diagnosed with hepatitis of unknown cause. The key experimental animal was a chimpanzee named No. 910; DNA and RNA were extracted from its plasma.

Using molecular biology techniques of the time, complementary DNA was made in the test tube to the nucleic acids extracted from the chimpanzee plasma. The complementary DNA was then inserted into a bacterial virus known as a bacteriophage lambda. These bacterial viruses are used to infect E. coli to make proteins in large quantities.

New virus discovery

To the amazement of Houghton and his team, the serum from a hepatitis patient contained antibodies that recognized proteins made in this way. These antibodies had detected a previously unknown lethal virus. Further experimentation with rigorous controls established that this represented a new RNA virus. A blood test was developed to detect patients infected with this virus they had discovered.

In 1975, Howard Alter discovered a form of lethal hepatitis in some patients who had received blood transfusions. Later, Charles Rice proved that the virus Houghton and his colleagues had discovered was the cause of this form of hepatitis.

Biotech Nobels

The Nobel Prize recognizes the work he conducted at the biotech company Chiron Corporation. The discovery is not the first Nobel Prize given to a biotech discovery — the polymerase chain reaction method, or PCR, used today to test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus is also a consequence of a biotech discovery. This discovery was made by Kary Mullis, who received the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work done at Cetus Corporation, one of the first biotechnology companies.

The innovations exemplified by these two Nobel Prizes heralds a new direction in discovery research through the talent and resources attracted to biotechnology via venture capital.

Houghton and his team developed a hepatitis C vaccine that is now in pre-clinical testing. He is also at the front lines of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. His current research — funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — aims to develop a vaccine against the key protein of these viruses that infects humans.

Houghton was recruited to Canada in 2010 in part through the Canada Excellence Research Chair program. Houghton’s 10 years in Edmonton as Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute has already led to the development of drugs for hepatitis C, as well as others that might be used to treat COVID-19.

Until recently, Canadian health research leaders could be funded for their research through the Foundation Grants program of CIHR. Regrettably, this program has now been terminated. This may be jeopardizing our hope for sustained excellence at the highest level to assure that we have the best talent for discovery research.

The recognition to Houghton in Alberta will hopefully embolden efforts to support our trailblazers throughout Canada, as we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Bergeron, Emeritus Robert Reford Professor and Professor of Medicine, McGill University, The Conversation

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday that the province has seen its first case of the B.1.617 variant. (Photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears record number of active COVID-19 cases

Alberta reports 1,857 new cases of COVID-19, 1,326 new variants

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta passes bill to give all workers paid leave to get COVID-19 vaccine shot

Labour Minister Jason Copping says Bill 71 will reduce barriers for Alberta workers to get vaccinated

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney say the province would look at adding additional COVID-19 measures in the coming weeks if the virus continues to spread. (Photo by Government of Alberta)
Walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic to open in Red Deer

Alberta adds 1,345 new cases of the virus

Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and vacation bookings are being increased in B.C. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. announces signage along Alberta border to discourage non-essential travel

B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Alberta bill would protect health workers, care homes from some COVID-19 lawsuits

The bill proposes exempting a range of workers, including doctors, pharmacists and care-home operators, from being sued over COVID-19 unless it was for gross negligence

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming to boost financial literacy among students

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. to help Canada with more COVID-19 vaccine supply, Biden says

The U.S. has already provided Canada with about 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

sign
Alberta Biobord Corp. recently hosted a virtual open house from Stettler

The company plans to develop a fuel pellet and medium density fibre board (MDF) plant near the community

Most Read