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Canadian researcher declines prestigious Gairdner award that left out collaborators

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TORONTO - The Gairdner Foundation announced the winners of its prestigious international awards for medical research Wednesday, but one of the recipients turned down the $100,000 prize because two key collaborators weren't included.

Michael Houghton, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta, declined the Canada Gairdner International Award, which he was chosen to receive with two Americans, Dr. Harvey Alter of the National Institutes of Health and Daniel Bradley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The trio were awarded the prize for their combined research, which led to the discovery of the hepatitis C virus and subsequent preventive screening tests that have virtually eliminated the spread of the virus through blood transfusions.

Houghton said he was honoured to have been chosen for the award, but felt it would be unfair to accept it without the inclusion of two key collaborators in the research, Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo, who worked for Chiron Corp., now owned by Novartis.

"The three of us worked closely together for almost seven years to discover this very elusive and challenging virus using a novel approach in the field of infectious disease," he said by email from Edmonton.

"Together, we then went on to develop blood tests that protected the global blood supply, to identify new drug targets that led to the development of new potent therapeutics and to obtain the first evidence for a protective vaccine."

Houghton congratulated Alter and Bradley, with whom he, Choo and Kuo have shared previous awards for their work on hepatitis C, which has infected about 150 million people worldwide and can lead to liver failure, liver cancer and can be fatal if untreated.

Dr. John Dirks, president and scientific director of the Gairdner, said the foundation stands by its choice of winners.

"We're very proud of the adjudication system," Dirks said of the selection process, which involves two panels of leading Canadian and international scientists. "We believe that we provided the correct analysis and got the right people.

"Obviously we're disappointed because we would have liked to have honoured him," Dirks said of Houghton.

The winners of four other Gairdners, which are known as the "baby Nobels," in part because 80 recipients have gone on to win the world's most sought-after scientific prize, were also announced Wednesday.

Stephen Joseph Elledge of the department of genetics at Harvard Medical School in Boston also won a Canada Gairdner International Award for pioneering work that led to a new way of thinking about DNA damage. His research has been translated into a better understanding of how cancer occurs and different ways to treat it.

Also honoured with an International Gairdner was Sir Gregory Winter, a genetic engineer at Cambridge University in the U.K., who discovered how to create synthetic human antibodies that would not be rejected by the immune system.

Winter’s work has led to the development of antibody-based treatments that target infectious diseases, inflammatory conditions and several cancers, among them the drugs Herceptin, Avastin and Humira.

The Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, recognizing a scientist whose research has made, or has the potential to make, a significant impact on health in the developing world, goes to Dr. King Holmes of the University of Washington's Center for AIDS and STD.

Holmes has spent 45 years researching sexually transmitted diseases. His work has led to many diagnostic tests and therapies for treating and preventing numerous infections, including human papilloma virus, gonorrhea, chlamydia and genital herpes.

The Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, given to a Canadian researcher who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in medical science throughout his or her career, goes to Dr. James Hogg, professor emeritus in pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of British Columbia.

Hogg's research, achieved over a 40 year career, has had a major impact on the understanding of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a disorder that affects millions of people worldwide.

"It was absolutely a surprise. I was flabbergasted," Hogg said in an interview after arriving in Toronto from Vancouver for the announcement.

"It's a lifetime award, so I really accept it as a recognition of the work that's going on in the respiratory field in Canada. And I hope it will bring some recognition for chronic obstructive lung disease, COPD, because it's a very important disease worldwide and in Canada.

"I'm very deeply honoured."

The Gairdner Awards, which include $100,000 for each recipient, will be presented at a gala dinner in Toronto on October 24.

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