Dr. D. Lorne Tyrrell

Professor of Medicine, Biochemistry, and Medical Microbiology and Immunology and Director of the Glaxo Heritage Research Institute University of Alberta
Researcher of the month: 
Oct 2009

Canada’s Devoted Hepatitis Warrior

The former Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, Lois E. Hole, once said that Dr. Lorne Tyrrell was a true representative of what it means to be a great Canadian, noting how modest and unassuming he is for an individual who has accomplished so much. This sentiment has been echoed time and again when referring to the tireless devotion that Dr. Tyrrell has shown to advancing our knowledge of and treatment for chronic viral hepatitis.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Tyrrell made medical history when the team he was leading at the University of Alberta’s Glaxo Wellcome Research Institute discovered antiviral therapy for chronic hepatitis B, a research feat which has subsequently led to the global licensing of Lamivudine, the first oral antiviral agent to treat hepatitis B infection. The medication, which is rapidly absorbed by the body with a bio-availability of over 80%, is now licensed for use in over 170 countries, and is saving many lives daily.

More than 2 billion people have been infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), which includes 350 million chronic carriers of the virus. Transmitted from exposure to infectious blood and body fluids, HBV causes an inflammation of the liver’s tissue and is endemic in sub Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and all of China. While acute hepatitis B virus infection can be symptomatic, generally fatigue and jaundice, most infections remain asymptomatic. However, if not cleared, it can also lead to a chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis B may eventually lead to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer—a cancer with a very poor prognosis. Annually, over one million people die from complications of HBV infection.

Raised on a farm in west Edmonton, Dr. Tyrrell’s future accomplishments were perhaps foreshadowed during his early years at the University of Alberta, where he received a Gold Medal in Science upon completion of a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, and a Gold Medal in Pediatrics upon finishing his Doctor of Medicine. However, it wasn’t until he completed a PhD in pharmacology at Queens’ University and started his postdoctoral training in virology at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, that a fire was lit for a research interest in infectious diseases that continues to burn to this day.

Current research in Dr. Tyrrell's Centre of Excellence for Viral Hepatitis Research (CEVHR) lab at the University of Alberta is focused on the study of hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV), with a major interest in therapeutic approaches for the treatment of chronic viral hepatitis. He hopes his lab’s efforts will soon spawn new therapeutic approaches that will lead to higher “cure” rates for chronic HBV or HCV.

Dr. Tyrrell's revolutionary work has been extensively recognized through accolades almost too numerous to mention, including the Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research (1998) and the Canadian Liver Foundation and the Canadian Association for Liver Diseases Gold Medal (2000), Prix Galien (1998), the Principal Award of the Manning Innovation Awards (2005), and the Fredric Newton Starr Award of the Canadian Medical Association (2004). He was also appointed to the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2000, named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2004).

Photo by Richard Siemens

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