Michael Houghton - The Potential in Alberta’s Life Sciences Sector
Michael Houghton
Nobel Prize Winner & Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology - University of Alberta

The Potential in Alberta’s Life Sciences Sector

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Takeaways

  1. Alberta has strong intellectual prowess in the life sciences, allowing different experts to come together and collaborate.
  2. Alberta’s artificial intelligence potential is good news for the life sciences as it will be a key enabler in the digital health revolution.
  3. The biotechnology sector holds immense promise as a key industry to boost Canada’s economy as the nation moved away from more traditional industries.

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The life sciences sector in Alberta holds great potential to become a key driver of the Canadian economy. With promising innovations and discoveries being made across multiple disciplines, the life sciences ecosystem in Alberta has proven that it is apt at fostering collaboration and supporting academics.


Tell us more about yourself and the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute (LKSAVI).

It is a pleasure to be talking with you. My career has been dedicated to advancing molecular medicine using molecular biology and virology to create new diagnostics for infectious diseases, new therapeutics to cure patients and new vaccines to prevent terrible infectious diseases like hepatitis C and COVID-19. 

When I was 17, I was motivated and inspired by Louis Pasteur and his magnificent work on bacteriology. I decided that this would be a good vocation for me and that I would dedicate my career to medical research. I have really enjoyed the last 11 years of my career at the University of Alberta doing that.


How would you characterize Alberta’s life sciences ecosystem?

Alberta has excellent universities and post-secondaries. The two big ones in terms of research are the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, but we have other excellent post-secondaries as well that have trained some highly qualified personnel.

“We have a tremendous intellectual quotient in Alberta.“

We have a tremendous intellectual quotient in Alberta. We have a lot of research going on not just in biology. The research involves physicists, computational scientists as well as clinical scientists. We have really excellent expertise in the life sciences that has focused over the last 11 years on making interventions for patients and tools for their doctors. Alberta is very well placed to become a major global player in biotechnology and molecular medicine and helping patients and their doctors.

The University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute was set up by Dr. D. Lorne Tyrrell in 2010. The University of Alberta is one of the few places in the world where we do basic research, train undergraduates and post-doctoral fellows and are integral to the pharmaceutical industry. We are doing very similar things as the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. For instance, we rolled out a COVID-19 vaccine, which was taken up by AstraZeneca. We are also doing very similar things as Emory University in the US. They have an institute like our Applied Virology Institute which discovered a really important drug that can inhibit the COVID-19 polymerase. This drug was licensed to Merck and will be approved for human use.

We are on a par with institutions like the University of Oxford, Emory and a few others around the world. Universities need to play a big role in advancing pharmaceutical science. If we keep going, we will be successful.

“We need new industries past oil and gas to maintain Canada’s global presence, and biotechnology can fill that gap,”

Over the last 11 years, the Alberta government has recognized that biotechnology and the kind of work we do in the Institute of Virology is very important medically but also commercially. Canada has a great resource in oil and gas, but we have recognized that we need new industries past oil and gas to maintain Canada’s global presence, and biotechnology can fill that gap as the oil and gas industry starts to decline. 

I saw this boom happen in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. I was also part of the biotech wave in California when I went there in 1982. What started off as one or two companies in biotech claiming they were going to revolutionize medicine emerged as a huge driver of health and the economy.

That is a bold statement and I hope it is a very prescient one on your part.


How do you see artificial intelligence and the life sciences interacting in Alberta and what opportunities exist there?

The University of Alberta is a leader in artificial intelligence (AI). That kind of technology can be applied at a lot of different levels. At one level, it can be used for what is known as digital health. It can help track patients and diagnoses, treatments and health, and that is very useful in helping incorporate a new patient into a huge database of similar patients. At that level, AI is going to be very important.

In Alberta, AI and the life sciences intersect through the development of computational drug discovery. Big pharmaceutical companies traditionally do what is known as wet-lab screening. In wet-lab screening, scientists might be looking at half a million compounds. They then develop a biological assay and screen them all using robots to find new drug hits, and then they use those to develop clinical compounds for testing.

“Smaller research organizations do not have the kind of logistics for wet-lab testing but computational drug discovery can fill that gap.”

Smaller research organizations do not have the kind of logistics for wet-lab testing but computational drug discovery can fill that gap. We have this technology thanks to Jack Tuszynski. We have some other brilliant computational scientists at the Applied Institute and what they are able to do now is just amazing. The technology allows us to predict the structure of a drug target, say a protein, and then focus on the active site, which is the part that conveys biological activity. This means that computational drug discovery can screen for billions of drugs in days. The computer spits out a priority list of the top 50 drugs that it thinks are going to bind to the keyhole. We have really exploited that technology for various diseases like Alzheimer’s, fatty liver disease and other diseases, and it is producing good, confirmed biological activities.

Waterloo, Canada has one of the world’s best quantum computational groups. In 10 years, we will have computers that are a hundred or a thousand times more powerful than what we have now. Imagine what is going to happen then. 

Computational science is going to be a crucial part of the pharmaceutical industry going forward. 

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Why did you choose to come to Alberta? 

There are a number of reasons why I chose the University of Alberta. The first reason is I knew Dr. D. Lorne Tyrrell from being in the same field as him in viral hepatitis. I respected and admired him and wanted to work with him. Secondly, I had been in California biotech for 25 years and I wanted something different. I am a person that likes to do different things. Thirdly, I applied for this very innovative program that Canada instigated in 2010 called the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program. The previous president of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, played an important role in implementing that program. I was fortunate to become a CERC chair, which came with very good funding. Canada Excellence Research Chairs receive unusually good funding.

“We have so many excellent scientists at the University of Alberta and Calgary.“

The last 11 years in Alberta have been amongst the most interesting and stimulating parts of my career. In biotech, you are so focused on one field, but at the University of Alberta, I have been able to interact with so many excellent scientists and medical doctors such as Jack Tuszynski, Jack Jhamandas, a distinguished neurologist, and D. Lorne Tyrrell, who was a major reason I came here and who has done so much to cure hepatitis B patients around the world. We have so many excellent scientists at the University of Alberta and Calgary. This has been one of the most stimulating periods of my career.

Michael Houghton - The Potential in Alberta’s Life Sciences Sector
Michael Houghton
Nobel Prize Winner & Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology - University of Alberta

Bio: Michael Houghton is the Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta where he is also the Director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute. He was also the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology from 2010-2018. In 2020, he was jointly named a Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine along with Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus. 

Organization Profile: The University of Alberta is a public research university located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute is located at the university, where a consortium of researchers works to understand viruses and other pathogens, their respective disease pathogenesis and host immune responses.