TEN

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

© Australian Government 2007 Paper-based publication This work is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the Commonwealth available from the Attorney-General’s Department. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to the Commonwealth Copyright Administration, Attorney-General’s Department, Robert Garran Offices, National Circuit, Canberra, ACT, 2600 or posted at: http://www.ag.gov.au/cca. ISBN Print: 1864964448 © Australian Government 2007 Electronic documents This work is copyright. You may download, display, print and reproduce this material in unaltered form only (retaining this notice) for your personal, non-commercial use, or use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, all other rights are reserved. Requests for further authorisation should be directed to the Commonwealth Copyright Administration, Attorney-General’s Department, Robert Garran Offices, National Circuit, Canberra, ACT, 2600 or posted at: http://www.ag.gov.au/cca. Online: 1864964502

To obtain information regarding NHMRC publications contact: Email: nhmrc.publications@nhmrc.gov.au Phone: Toll free 13 000 NHMRC (13 000 64672) or call 02 6217 9000 Internet: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

Ten of The BesT

FoREwoRD
Today, thanks to Australian medical researchers, we live in a world were cochlear implants give sound where there was silence, vaccines for cervical cancer exist and a glass of bacteria infested broth taught us that this bacteria can cause stomach ulcers. As a medical researcher, it gives me a strong sense of pride to be part of a community which includes some of the greatest minds in the world. Australian researchers are leading the way in the fight against many diseases including cancer, malaria and other infectious diseases. The talent in this country is outstanding. As the CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council, it gives me great pleasure to know that with the help of our funding, the work of the men and women profiled on these pages will continue and keep Australia at the international forefront of health and medical research. The outstanding researchers profiled in 10 of the Best - Great minds in Australian research have effected change in health and medical research in this country as well as internationally either through their groundbreaking research and their dedication to research policy. It is a privilege to be able to introduce you to these researchers who have such an important and largely unacknowledged role in the health of every man, woman and child in our country. I feel humbled by the dedication, perseverance and talent of these people who truly are among the greatest minds in health and medical research.

Professor Warwick Anderson, AM

Chief executive officer

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

SAM BERKOVIC – THE GENETICS OF EPILEPSY
Professor Sam Berkovic describes himself as ‘a clinical neurologist with a special interest in epilepsy’ which may be the understatement of the century. Professor Berkovic’s research has in fact revealed new insights into the genetics of epilepsy and has led to changes in patient management and new concepts in the understanding of epilepsies. His research was the first to prove that many types of epilepsy have a significant genetic component and once he looked deeper into the illness and discovered a number of new inherited epilepsy syndromes which led to many more discoveries. Some specific consequences of Professor Berkovic’s work include more accurate diagnosis, treatment and counselling of people with epilepsy. The hope now is to develop novel therapeutic approaches. “We’re focussing mainly on the genetic causes of epilepsy. We’re hoping to understand the genes that underlie epilepsy, of which we’ve already discovered quite a number, so we can then understand what the chain is between having an abnormal gene and having epilepsy”, he said. “When we understand that chain we will then be in a position to try and intervene and develop better strategies for treatment.” “My boss at the time was very, very interested in epilepsy and seemed to be doing things that weren’t written in the books or that other people that I talked to didn’t seem to know about and it just seemed incredibly interesting. I really got hooked on it then.” When asked what his primary motivation for being a researcher is, Professor Berkovic gives an easy, one-word answer— curiosity. “It’s fun to find things out that other people haven’t figured out, that sort of intellectual curiosity makes it easier to get up every morning for sure but also as a clinical researcher you see almost on a day to day basis the results of the work that you do. That’s very rewarding.”

ONE

For as long as he can remember, Professor Berkovic wanted to be a doctor. While in medical school he found himself more and more interested in the human brain. His fascination with epilepsy came from his first job as a neurology intern at the Austin Hospital.

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

DOUG HILTON – SOLVING THE GENOMIC JIGSAW
Since the completion of the Human Genome Project— an ambitious project which mapped all 25,000 genes in human DNA— all the pieces of the Genetic jigsaw which make up a human being have been identified so the key now is to work out what all of these genes do and how they interact to build a complete picture and potentially prevent or cure some our most devastating diseases. Leading the way in fitting this complex, and at times confusing jigsaw together is Professor Doug Hilton from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. Looking very little like a traditional scientist and more like an Mt Everest climbing adventurer, Professor Hilton is broadly considered to be pioneer in the field of haematological research. His groundbreaking discoveries include how the body’s cells communicate with each other and his current work, using the rich source of information provided by gene mapping, may one day lead to identifying the genes which maybe targeted to treat many debilitating diseases. Professor Hilton says, “With the genes that control blood cell development, the hope is that by understanding how blood cells normally develop we can intervene in diseases like leukaemia and arthritis.” Although Professor Hilton’s research tends to focus on blood cell diseases, the potential of his research is far reaching and may one day spell and end to many other types of disease. Something that sets Professor Hilton apart is the fact that his love of research is met squarely by his passion for nurturing and encouraging young researchers. “I would love to be remembered for making a really useful contribution to treating diseases but also having a group of young people who have been given an opportunity to do research in my lab and who go on to do something even more significant than I did. That would actually be more exciting to me in some ways.” Professor Hilton also cites being father to two young children as really opening his eyes to enjoying seeing someone else succeed as much as succeeding himself. Having children has also made him look at his own career, appreciate his success and to prioritise the important things in his life. “I can’t see myself still doing this when I’m 75; I think we have a finite period where we are really at the cutting edge. There are other things I want to do, down the track I can see myself contributing to science through consulting, policy development and administration. There is also an element of getting out of the way of younger researchers. I’m really passionate about moving on and letting the next generation take up opportunities.”

TWO

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

JOHN HOPPER – A MATHEMATICIAN WITH THE HEART OF AN EPIDEMIOLOGIST
One would assume that the Director of the Centre for Genetic Epidemiology and Australian Twin Registry who is also on the editorial boards of Genetic Epidemiology and Journal of Epidemiology and Biostatistics along with heading up the research team which introduced the concept of using the families in large cohorts to the leading research organisation in the world, the National Institute of Health in America, would be one of Australia’s leading epidemiologists. But, you would be wrong. Professor John Hopper is in fact, primarily, a mathematician and statistician. After completing his PhD in mathematical statistics, he found that creating statistical models for epidemiological studies wasn’t quite as fulfilling as it could be. So, following in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Malcolm Pike, he went on to cross the invisible line to become a world leading researcher in genetic epidemiology although he doesn’t consider himself to be either an epidemiologist or a geneticist. “I’ve found that my background of coming from outside a lab has actually been an advantage. I have no preconceived ideas, the information for me is in the data and I’m quite happy to be proven wrong”, he said. “What you learn from mathematics is the process of logical thinking. Scientists have a reputation for being boffins that know and remember everything; my attitude is that I will become an expert when you put the data in front of me!” Professor Hopper’s current population based studies looks at genes and the environment together in breast cancer, bowel cancer, and prostate cancer. “There is a general belief that what dictates health is an interaction between your genetic make-up and your environment.” Professor Hopper’s research has redefined how epidemiological studies are conducted. In the early 1990’s, along with Graham Giles and Margaret McReady, Professor Hopper set up what was called case/control/family studies where they identified cases from the cancer registry and controls from the electoral role, establishing the concept of using a ‘control family’. “The population based case control family studies are the way of doing epidemiology in the future. If you only study the families with lots of cases of a particular disease, you end up with a very biased picture of the genetics. Using control families, you get a different view.” The view his team did get caused backlash amongst the scientific community. By putting the genetics into a population based perspective, instead of saying that the lifetime risk of people with these mutations was around 80 – 90%, their studies showed it was actually about half of that. Professor Hoppers research was proved to be right. “It took balls to set up these studies, we got a little bruised and battered in the process but in the end its about using correct data. Let the data speak for itself”.

HREE T

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

TONY MCMICHAEL – UNLOCKING THE CLIMATE CHANGE PUZZLE
Epidemiologists, by their very definition, set about detecting the source and cause of disease in populations. These ‘puzzlemasters’ continually look at health through a wide-angle lens, and their ideas then go on to influence other areas of research and inform policy. For Professor Tony McMichael, his research into the effects of environmental change on human health could not only have the potential to influence our health, it could also help preserve our very existence. During the late 1980’s it became increasingly clear to Professor McMichael that the emerging evidence of new, global, environmental changes—such as the then-controversial Greenhouse Effect—posed very real and very significant risks to human health. “We are effectively changing the climate on the planet, which in turn has a huge impact on its life support systems. Much of the risk to health lies in the future, as this now-inexorable process gathers momentum for at least the next several decades,” he says. The challenge now for Professor McMichael is threefold – to understand better how climatic conditions affect human health; to detect the emerging impacts of climate change on health; and to estimate the likely future impacts. “We need to take localised action to lessen adverse health impacts – and, more importantly, this new awareness that human health is at risk underscores the profound significance of humaninduced climate change. Since it endangers biological processes and the planet’s life-support system, the world community must now reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and substantially.” Although described as a pioneer and a visionary, Professor McMichael prefers to think of himself as researcher just trying to better understand the population health consequences of the ‘increasing interconnectedness and intensity of the human endeavour’. “Research without the application of findings may as well not be done. The immediate application of much research is to advance the methods of science itself. However, epidemiological research is never very far from the community front-line. We do our research to understand and eliminate the causes of disease.” When the cause of disease appears to be us, Professor McMichael certainly has a huge task ahead. But after speaking with the quietly spoken man for even a few minutes and seeing first-hand the steely determination of a man with a mission— whose research on lead exposure and child intellectual development directly influenced the decision to phase out leaded petrol in Australia—you get the impression that, if anyone can do it, Professor Tony McMichael will.

OUR F

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

ROBERT NORMAN – CHANGING THE FACE OF FERTILITY
Young, healthy people take it for granted that when they are ready to have a baby it will be an easy and simple goal to achieve once they cease contraception. The reality for around 10-15 per cent of couples is quite different. Infertility can be a devastating blow to a couple wanting a child and up until around thirty years ago, if this was the hand you were dealt then your only options were adoption or childlessness. Modern science has changed that for many couples thanks to advances in Assisted Reproductive Technologies such as IVF. Professor Robert Norman, an obstetrician-gynaecologist and reproductive medicine specialist warns against believing that IVF is a cure all for infertility. “IVF has limitations; it is not a perfect process suitable for everyone and it is being overused. There are a number of fundamental factors that affect fertility which aren’t being addressed such as lifestyle, smoking, obesity or delaying pregnancy until a late reproductive age. These are all things than can be resolved without high-tech, expensive medicine.” A tall and gentle man with the last traces of a Rhodesian accent, Professor Norman is a pioneer in fertility techniques. His laboratory is responsible for refining and promoting the single embryo implantation technique and introducing pioneering quality management techniques. Previously, several embryos were implanted to give the best odds of a pregnancy however the result was often twins or triplets. Through his team’s research, pregnancies are now being achieved through the implantation of a single embryo in more than 85% of cycles. “For women under the age of 38 over 98% of our embryo transfers are one embryo which results in a healthier baby who doesn’t need to be in intensive care.” Professor Norman credits his first class lab and a team of young, dynamic researchers with changing the practices of IVF throughout Australia. His current research delves deeper into the earliest stages of life, factors affecting fertility and links to the early origins of disease which has led to his introduction of pioneering lifestyle programs to combat the adverse effects of obesity on infertility and pregnancy complications. “I truly hope that the future for IVF is that it is used less! What I would like to see is a situation where people are assessed properly, using evidence based methods based on research. That there is lifestyle modifications appropriate to their condition and that includes existing health pathways within the Australian medical system but also new ones that can be developed through research.” But, says Professor Norman, for those whom lifestyle change has failed or isn’t appropriate, he wants to see a very high quality IVF system which produces a single baby with minimal financial and emotional distress to the couple. Professor Normans research is well and truly on the path the achieving this. “I’m a person who thinks several years ahead. Often people like me stumble because they are so intent on looking forward that they don’t see the rocks at their feet. But I think as I get older I realise its not just high profile clinical work with advanced technology that makes a difference, its getting amongst people with evidence based knowledge that allows them to change things themselves. When that fails, our interventions must be appropriate and with a long term view.”

FIVE

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

ROBYN O’HEHIR – EFFICIENCY PERSONIFIED
Being in the presence of someone whose list of achievements includes holding the first and only Professorship in Allergy and Clinical Immunology in adult medicine can be somewhat intimidating. When you meet Professor Robyn O’Hehir in person, however, any preconceived notions about what an academic and clinician of her calibre should be like immediately fly out the window. Upon meeting Professor O’Hehir you are immediately struck by how warm and welcoming she is. It is easy to picture this outstanding researcher as a clinician with a keen interest in her patients, which is exactly what she is. Describing herself as a clinician first and foremost, Professor O’Hehir says that while the science is fascinating, the additional human element is what makes it all real for her. “As a young doctor I can remember resuscitating young adults from respiratory arrest due to severe untreated asthma who then went on to return to confident, full lives. Some are still my patients today, and it’s seeing these patients live full lives with the help of medication and education that makes it all worth it.” An allergy and respiratory medicine specialist, Professor O’Hehir’s current research is working to develop allergen immunotherapy vaccines for the prevention of peanut and other serious environmental allergies. “Allergen immunotherapy is the only treatment that can prevent allergic diseases. We are currently identifying the critical peanut proteins that might induce tolerance to peanut in allergic patients without risking an allergic reaction.” As the first scientist to isolate stable human white blood cell populations from allergic patients that recognise house dust mite allergens, Professor O’Hehir’s research has led her to explore novel methods for ‘switching off’ allergic reactions which may mean an end to life threatening anaphylaxis. Along with her research and her clinical commitments, Professor O’Hehir finds the time to mentor other women entering the demanding field of clinical research. “As one of the few female Professors of Medicine in Australia, I try to provide a role model for the many excellent women entering medicine. Being a woman and a scientist isn’t easy, finding a balance between your scientific life and your personal life. I’m lucky, I have a fantastic support team in my husband along with a fully equipped home office which makes it possible,” she said, “If I can offer advice to other women trying to find that balance then it’s my pleasure to do so.” To describe Professor O’Hehir is easy; a brilliant scientist, a caring doctor, a loving mother, and a mentor—truly an extraordinary woman indeed.

SIX

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

JAMES PATON – THE ACCIDENTAL MICROBIOLOGIST
Being described as one of the leading international figures in microbiology research amuses Professor James Paton for the simple fact that he is probably the only researcher in the field not to have studied the subject as an undergraduate. Although he may not have initially considered a career in the area as a young student, Professor Paton has gone on to become one of the worlds most respected and recognised researchers leading the fight against one of the biggest bacterial killers on the planet, pneumococcus. Responsible for causing pneumonia and meningitis, pneumococcus, like a number of other bacteria, is becoming resistant to current antibiotics. Professor Paton and his team from the University of Adelaide are currently working on the development of a vaccine for this too often deadly microorganism. While other vaccines already exist for pneumococcus, they are of limited scope or are extremely expensive, which puts them out of reach of most third world countries where the need is greatest. Professor Paton’s vaccine, once it is through final clinical testing, will be able to be made for a couple of dollars a dose which makes it accessible to the most at risk communities. “I’ll die a happy man if we can have an impact on the incidence of this disease in young and vulnerable children, not only in Australia but in countries that can’t afford modern drugs.” Professor Paton became interested in pneumococcus in 1982 while working at what was then the Adelaide Children’s Hospital in a diagnostic microbiology role—a position Professor Paton still wonders how he got—where he found that being in a hospital environment gave him first-hand insight into the effects of bacterial infections on patients. “There were advantages in doing research in the hospital environment where you had your research laboratory juxtaposed to a clinical diagnostic service laboratory and it gave you a real feel for what were the important causes of disease” he said. Professor Paton knew quite early on that research was going to be his field of choice. “My family background is scientific, my mother was an early biochemist and my father built scientific equipment, some of which is still in my lab!” “I wondered about whether I should do medicine, but opted for science because I would rather be discovering and developing the drug than implementing someone else’s discovery.” Professor Paton’s wife, Dr. Adrienne Paton, is also a highly respected researcher however that is where the family business ends. Their four children have pursued careers in music/ teaching, accounting and the law. “I think Adrienne and I have bored them witless by talking shop at home!”

EVEN S

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

PETER SLY – THE GLOVES ARE OFF ON ASTHMA
Heading up the clinical sciences division of one of Australia’s most prestigious research institutions, being able to lay claim to an NHMRC Research Fellowship, and owning the title of Director Clinical Research and Education at a well known children’s hospital are notations on the resume that most scientists would be proud to add. Clinician and researcher Professor Peter Sly from the Telethon Institute for Health Research is indeed proud of his achievements but sees them more as a by product of his true achievements which is research that has made a significant difference to the lives of children suffering from cystic fibrosis and asthma. Professor Sly is part of a team that has established the first true primary prevention study of asthma in the world. “Understanding the mechanisms of this disease in order to prevent it is the ultimate goal of our work because with asthma there has been nothing new on the horizon for asthma treatments in the past 20 years and there’s not likely to be. The current treatments are effective in most cases but what we are aiming to do is prevent it occurring to begin with.” During his medical rotation, Professor Sly found that paediatrics was the field that really interested him, not only for the complexity of the diseases that children face but also because of the children themselves. “Paediatrics was an easy choice for me because of the genuineness of kids—you can walk up to a kid in hospital and ask how they are and the answer is always ‘good’ no matter how ill they actually are. If you ask an adult the same question you’d better have an hour to spare for the answer.” Completing his training at the Royal Children’s hospital in Melbourne, Professor Sly also discovered an interest in respiratory medicine, an interest that has led him to being one of the most respected asthma and cystic fibrosis researchers in the world. Despite being responsible for work that has changed the way asthma and other diseases are managed, he doesn’t compare himself to other high achieving and well recognised peers. He is quick to point out the world is different from the time of the McFarlane Burnetts and Howard Florey’s, researchers of his generation won’t be remembered in the same way but you get the impression that it doesn’t bother him one bit. This is a man who is less interested in journal publications and more interested in just doing the work. “When I first started in research my mum would ring up and ask, ‘have you discovered anything yet’ and I would have to say ‘no mum, it doesn’t work like that!’”, he recalls with a chuckle. To a man like Peter Sly, the measure of success doesn’t come from how many journals his name appears in, it comes from seeing a child that he has helped live a better life through his research. “My simplistic hope for all of my work is to eventually prevent kids from getting asthma, and to one day stop the progression of the lung destruction that is at the moment inevitable in kids with cystic fibrosis, and I really do think we’re on the right track to do it.”

IGHT E

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

DAVID VAUX – TAMING THE MISBEHAVING GENES
History tells us that most groundbreaking research, the work that challenges previously held conventions and changes the face of health, happens rarely. Only a handful of scientists in the world can lay claim to work that forces a new school of thought on an issue that has long been believed already settled. Amongst this elite group is Australia’s Professor David Vaux along with his colleagues whose pioneering research challenged the conventional belief that cancers arise because their cells divide more rapidly than normal. He found instead that cancer could also be caused by cells failing to die. “Our bodies have something like a million billion cells,” he said. “Every second of every day a million kill themselves, which balances the million cells that are produced every second. If cell death fails to occur, it can lead to the development of diseases such as cancer.” This discovery fundamentally altered the scientific view of how cancers arise and has led Professor Vaux to now study a family of cell death inhibitors known as inhibitors of apoptosis proteins (IAPs). These proteins may be another target in the battle against cancer. “We’ve got our fingers crossed that the human trials of a drug that inhibits IAPs will show it can kill cancer cells and doesn’t seem to have any major toxic side effects.” Listening to Professor Vaux animatedly describe his research it is easy to see that this is a man who isn’t doing the job for glory, this is a man who is in love with science and despite being widely lauded and world renowned, is still a basic scientist at heart. “I’ve been very lucky. I’m fortunate enough to do a job that I love. Every day, researchers like me get to come into the lab and have the chance of finding something new that has not been seen by anyone ever before.” Professor Vaux’s love of science extends beyond his own research. Two years ago he noticed that many papers in a well known journal had graphs that didn’t explain their error bars, making the data impossible to interpret. To Professor Vaux, this was a sign that something had gone badly wrong with the quality control of scientific publications. “I guess you could say one of my hobbies is trying to improve the quality of data in publications. Science is the only way of obtaining new knowledge, but it will progress more rapidly, and with less false leads, if the standards are lifted .” As well as giving the usual research presentations, Professor Vaux says he is on a mission to improve the quality of scientific data being published. He makes time in his already packed diary to give lectures on the presentation and interpretation of data in scientific publications to researchers from Cambridge in the UK to the Mayo Clinic and Cold Spring Harbor Labs in the US.

INE N

GREAT MINDS IN AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH

TEN OF THE BEST

PROFESSOR JUDITH WHITWORTH – FIERCELY DETERMINED
Health and medical research is a demanding and challenging career. Successes are met in equal measure by failures and the often elusive answer to a question is rarely black and white. To be a researcher is to commit yourself to a career that may offer frustration in place of financial reward. For some it isn’t a career choice, it is a calling. Such is the case with Professor Judith Whitworth AC, Director and Howard Florey Professor of Medical Research at The John Curtin School of Medical Research. To look into the exact and measuring gaze of this woman is to truly understand fierce determination. Overcoming childhood polio, Judith Whitworth decided as a young girl to marry her love of science with her fascination with all of the staff she watched during her long stays in hospital. A highly respected doctor, researcher and medical administrator, Professor Whitworth’s contribution to all three fields has been outstanding and her leadership in these fields recognised when she was made a Companion in the Order of Australia Medal in 2001. As the former Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, a practising medical doctor and a pioneer in the field of hypertension research, Professor Whitworth’s achievements go beyond most. Her love of science led Professor Whitworth easily into a career as a researcher. During a stint as a resident at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Professor Whitworth was allocated a term in the clinical research unit attached to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute under Dr Ian Mackay who was responsible for lighting the fire of interest in research in someone who had originally intended a career as a clinical nephrologist. Professor Whitworth’s stunning research career is highlighted with outstanding achievements including major discoveries in the area of hypertension. “I am delighted that the recent research we have done which has, essentially, overturned conventional dogma that glucocorticoid hormones raise blood pressure through salt and water retention”, she said. Professor Whitworth’s work showed instead that reduced availability of vasodilating nitric oxide is a main cause. This research will pave the way for the development of new synthetic steroids—an essential treatment for a wide range of clinical conditions. Alongside her illustrious research career, one of Professor Whitworth’s main areas of interest is health policy research. Her work has directly influenced the development of policy for health and medical research in Australia and internationally. “I’m excited that we have unraveled the causes of glucocorticoid hypertension but I’m also very pleased that we now have research firmly on the agenda of the World Health Assembly.” For a woman of such immense achievement, Professor Whitworth isn’t comfortable with talking about herself, preferring instead to let the focus stay on her work—and her body of work speaks for itself. The determination and brilliance of this woman has truly made a difference on the future of our health.

TEN

woRkING To BUILD A HEALTHy AUSTRALIA
www.nhmrc.gov.au