Telephone interview, October 2020
“It was a testament to the power of the biotechnology industry”
Telephone interview with Michael Houghton following the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
“I tried to get back to sleep, but in the end I gave up!” So began Michael Houghton’s day after being called by a friend who had just heard news of his Nobel Prize at 3am in Alberta, Canada.
Cloning the Hepatitis C virus took a frustratingly long time, which he measured by watching the construction of large buildings on his drive into work each day: “I think they had to erect about 10 hotels before we finally found it!” Despite the marvellous success in developing drugs that can cure almost everybody, Houghton reminds us that Hepatitis C is a pandemic, which still kills around 400,000 people every year.
Michael Houghton: Hello?
Adam Smith: Hello, this is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. Is this Michael Houghton?
MH: Yes it is, hello Adam.
AS: How nice to speak to you. Well, first of all congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
MH: Thank you very much. It’s a great honour of course, and I’m very, very, very pleased. Thank you.
AS: How did you actually hear the news?
MH: My colleague in Alberta, Dr Tyrell, he called me at three o’clock in the morning, and told me that I’d won it, and if course it was a big surprise and I was very sleepy. But I tried to go back to sleep afterwards but couldn’t quite manage it. But … And yes, it was wonderful.
AS: I think it’s very sanguine to try and go back to sleep afterwards. I think one of the economics laureates last year, Abhijit Banerjee, did that, but it requires some cool.
MH: Well, it wasn’t too successful. I kind of dosed off and on, so it wasn’t a particularly good sleep. In the end I gave up. And then of course got on emails and there’s hundreds and hundreds of emails, which is all very nice of course.
AS: Yeah, it’s going to be a busy day.
AS: It’s an extraordinary story of people working together and with your cloning of the virus and development of the blood test in 1990, the ability to remove the danger of the disease for millions of people, it’s quite extraordinary.
MH: Well, thank you very much. You know, at the time of trying to discover Hep C in the ‘80s, it was a difficult task. We didn’t have the tools available then that we do now of course, so 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 7 or 8 years, and eventually we got one clone, after screening probably hundreds of millions of clones. So, yes, I work with some great people, without whom I would not have had this success. And we worked very hard, and so a lot of hard work and persistence was part of our success story, for sure.
AS: When students hear that sort of story, they often ask ‘how did you keep going, what kept your belief alive?’.
MH: Well, you know, I got into microbiology when I was 17 having read about Louis Pasteur’s life and his work, so he was my inspiration, and I think trying to discover a major virus is kind of incentive enough, you know. I remember driving to work during those 7 or 8 years where we were frustrated for so long and watching all these new hotels going up around the institution that I worked at, and I was thinking ‘Oh well, they just started this big hotel, I’m sure we will have found it by the time it’s finished’. But no, it wasn’t. I think they had to erect about 10 hotels before we finally found it!
AS: I’m left with an extraordinary vision of measuring the progress of research through the erection of large buildings.
MH: [Laughs] It was hard. I was working at a biotech company in California, as you may know, and so biotech companies in the States, they want results, right? They have investors that give a lot of money, and they want results sooner than later, especially in the US. So you know it’s great that the company I worked at was willing to work on it and to persist in funding it, and all of our venture capitalists and so forth. And I think in a real way it was a testament to the power of the biotechnology industry, but also it was a lot of pressure on me to manage the programme and to keep it going, with years and years of failure basically. Yeah, so I got pretty desperate: ‘Surely we’ll do it before this one’s completed!’. [Laughs]
AS: Well you did it! Indeed, indeed. And you’re now working on the development of a vaccine.
MH: Yes, yes. You know, quickly after we discovered the virus we developed a blood test, that was the most urgent need to protect the blood supply. And as you said earlier, we did that quite quickly. And then of course the two big challenges were trying to find therapeutics for the virus, and that took a long time. It took, you know, the whole field and the pharmaceutical industry working for more than 20 years. But eventually, we’ve got these wonderful drugs now that can cure nearly everybody quite quickly and safely. But it is a, you know, it is an epidemic, global epidemic. It is a pandemic. HCV today kills around 400,000 people every year. If you put that in the context of COVID, which we’re all obviously very concerned with, that’s already killed 1 million people. So, you know, the way eventually you have to control an epidemic like this is with a vaccine. After many years of work I think our field feels that it is now feasible, at least a partially effective vaccine. So yes, I’m at the University of Alberta I’ve been working on an improved version that we think has a good chance of success, or at least being partially effective.
AS: That’s exciting. I do hope we’ll have the chance to speak about this at greater length very soon. But now I should let you get on, you’ve got so many people to talk to. So, it’s been a great pleasure speaking to you. Thank you very much indeed, and many, many congratulations.
MH: Thank you Adam. Much appreciated. Bye bye.
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.