When the latest winners of Canada’s most prestigious international science prize were named in Toronto, one question was buzzing in the background: Why would someone turn it down?
Michael Houghton, who holds a $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chair in virology at the University of Alberta, had apparently surprised the Gairdner Foundation by being the first person to decline the prize in its 54-year history.
Dr. Houghton, who was not at the ceremony on Wednesday, said he could not accept the Gairdner because two close collaborators were not being similarly recognized. Qui-Lim Choo and George Kuo worked with Dr. Houghton at Chiron Corporation, a California biotech company, when they identified and cloned the hepatitis C virus. The discovery has since led to screening tests that have reduced the risk of acquiring HCV through blood transfusion from one in three to about one in two million.
Dr. Houghton has previously been recognized for this work and in 2000 accepted the Lasker award, the highest U.S.-based award in the life sciences. Neither Dr. Choo nor Dr. Kuo were named as co-winners on that occasion. However, Dr. Houghton maintains he did not apply a double standard in choosing not to accept the Canadian award, but rather did not want to relive the conflict he felt after accepting the Lasker.
“I agonized over it,” Dr. Houghton said. “And I decided I didn’t want to do that again.”