Peter Doherty: back into the fold

By Melissa Trudinger
Tuesday, 18 June, 2002

When Australian Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine, little did he know it would be his ticket back to Australia.

"I'm sure if it wasn't for the Nobel Prize I wouldn't be coming back to Australia," he said in a recent conversation with Australian Biotechnology News.

Doherty will be moving back here at the end of June and is looking forward to getting re-established in Melbourne.

"I'm feeling good about moving back," said Doherty. "I've been backwards and forwards since the Nobel Prize."

For the last three years, Doherty has been a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Melbourne, spending up to three months a year in Melbourne. Doherty now plans to be in Australia for about nine months of the year, spending the other three months at his old lab at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis Tennessee, where he has been for the last 14 years.

His new lab, in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne will continue to focus on the issues of immune responses to viruses, particularly the killer T cell response.

Early experiments on killer T cell responses to viruses led Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel, both at ANU's John Curtin School of Medical Research at the time, to discover the role of major histocompatibility (MHC) antigens in the immune system - which won them the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Doherty explained that while he has performed most of his research in mice, he and his team are beginning to look at human responses too. He's enthusiastic about the prospect of forming new collaborations here and is looking forward to being in the Parkville research environment.

He doesn't seem too concerned about downsizing his lab to move back here either.

"From the point of immunology, it will be better being in the same area as WEHI. There is very strong science there," he said.

According to Doherty, an understanding of the immune system responses to viruses could eventually lead to the development of drugs to combat the infections.

"We could start looking at what works and what doesn't and start looking at how to correct this," he said.

Doherty is receiving substantial support from the University as well as from the Federal and Victorian state governments. The university is paying his salary as a Laureate Professor - reserved for particularly distinguished researchers, as well as providing administrative support and fitting out his new lab for him.

Doherty is also the recipient of a Burnet Award from the NHMRC, which will provide $400,000 per year for the next 5 years to support his research and the young scientists in his team. The Burnet Award is specifically aimed at bringing back world-renowned researchers like Doherty to Australia.

And Victorian Premier Steve Bracks announced at the Victorian delegates' function before the Bio 2002 conference in Toronto that the state government would provide a further $500,000 to Doherty and his team to support their work.

"Victoria is Australia's biotechnology capital and our sector's capabilities, expertise and potential certainly played a major role in attracting such a high calibre scientist as Prof Doherty," Bracks said.

Prof Jim McCluskey, head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said that there was a great sense of excitement about Doherty's return within the immunology research community in Melbourne.

"He's such a great inspiration. Top students are scrambling to work with him," he said. "We're all thrilled, incredibly excited, and very proud."

McCluskey said that Doherty was still a very active scientist, who stayed very involved with the research in his lab and strongly believed in mentoring younger scientists.

"He's already attracted a group of Australian researchers from St Jude to come back with him, so he's already doing that mentoring," he added.

Doherty's interests in Australia will not be restricted to his academic pursuits however. He is likely to become involved with a range of activities, from advocating science to advising the government.

"It's extraordinary how much public awareness and stature goes with the prize. After receiving the prize I realised there was a much broader role to play," he said.

According to Prof McCluskey he has accepted a position on the board of the Burnet Institute, part of the new research precinct at the Alfred Hospital.

Doherty also plans to work to promote science and education to the broader community. His Nobel Prize has given him the opportunity to reach out to the public and greater access to the media, he said, and sees this as an important role.

In addition, Doherty is expecting to play a part in promoting the Bio21 initiative, the biotech and research precinct planned for the Parkville locale.

"I've been speaking up for science and biotechnology without actually being a biotechnologist," said Doherty.

Doherty said the current funding emphasis on application driven research is understandable and is philosophical about the amount of funding provided by the government for research and development.

"One would like to see more resources (for research) coming in," he said. "The big defect is not government support, it is the lack of other support. The government hasn't got infinite resources."

According to Doherty, curiosity-driven and applied approaches to science are more aligned these days, making it easier to be involved in both.

"Basic science demonstrates the possibility for intervention. This is the basis of the burgeoning biotechnology industry," he said.

He sees the big issue for Australian biotech as being how to compete with the US.

"Things get off the ground in Australia, then either not enough capital or not a big enough market forces it overseas," he said. "This is the problem, but I don't know how to get around it. It may be the fate of Australian biotech to be bought out or moved out, but this is not the solution that the government wants."

Australia needs to develop its own way of doing biotechnology, Doherty believes.

"We're not too bad at doing science really. We can be flexible. If we pick problems off the mainstream, we can make an impact. That has been how science has always worked in Australia. Australian science is less well funded but more thoughtful."

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