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Gairdner Foundation honours two of three prizewinners for hepatitis C research

As they sipped an Ontario sauvignon blanc and munched on Canadian lobster and tuna tartar, guests gathered last night at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC for a celebration of two of the prestigious Canada Gairdner Awards. But one key guest was missing.

In March, for the first time since the first awards were made in 1959, a recipient declined the $100,000 prize. That was Michael Houghton, a virologist at the University of Alberta who is a co-discoverer of the hepatitis C virus. Houghton’s co-winners, Harvey Alter of the National Institutes of Health and Daniel Bradley, formerly of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were  honored at the embassy last night, in a sixth-floor reception room with nearly-unparalleled views of the US Capitol.

Introducing them, John Dirks, president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation, noted wryly, “Michael chose for the first time in our history to decline this award. I won’t go into that. All I can say is that it did give us a lot of publicity. It’s the old story: All news is good news.”

After declining the award in March, Houghton, who in 2000 shared a Lasker award with Alter for his hepatitis C accomplishments, told the Globe and Mail that he “agonized” after accepting the Lasker, because two of his collaborators at the biotechnology company Chiron were not similarly recognized. Houghton worked closely with Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo to identify and clone the hepatitis C virus, and he determined that he would not in future accept an award that did not also honour them.

The arduous, multi-year quest to identify hepatitis C, which can be transmitted by blood transfusions, laid the foundation not only for a huge improvement in the safety of the blood supply, but for promising hepatitis C therapies that are now close to the market, as Nature reports this week.

The Gairdner Foundation, like the Nobel Foundation, limits to three the number of scientists who can share an award — a limit that, some argue, is outdated in an age of team science.

Alter, when he stepped to the podium last night, implied as much in a speech that likened the work of research to that of making a movie. Beyond the award winners in the limelight at the Academy Awards, he noted, are “many many more supporting actors who played such critical roles.” (The director of his movie, he said, was undoubtedly his wife, Diane Dowling, even if she never set foot in the lab.)

For a cogent, if opinionated, description on what each of the five men contributed in the quest to track down hepatitis C and screen it in the blood supply, see this Scientific Clearinghouse blog.

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