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Professor Peter Doherty

Professor Peter Doherty is an Australian medical researcher specialising in infectious diseases.  His research with Rolf Zinkernagel into how the body’s immune cells protect against viruses won them both the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1995.  In 1997, Peter was also named Australian of the Year, made a Companion of the Order of Australia and named by the National Trust as one of Australia’s National Living Treasures.  He has also written many popular science books including a semi-autobiographical book with the tongue in cheek title ‘The Beginners Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize’.  The Peter Doherty Institute, of which he is the patron, opened in 2014 and is one the world’s leading research facilities into infectious diseases.

The adaptive immune system, and the very specific part of it that I study, has evolved over about the last 400 million years.  

On becoming interested in science

Well, I was OK at science at school but I wasn’t passionate about it.  Then I discovered biology.  We didn’t learn biology at school, that was for girls!  And, ah, we learnt physics and chemistry.  Boys were physical, girls were biological!  And I went along to an open day at the local veterinary school at the University of Queensland and was absolutely fascinated.  And that really set my course.

Also, I had a cousin who was working on infectious diseases, a medical researcher who was working with insect borne viruses and that piqued my interest and gave me the idea that you could actually do something like this for a living.  And I think that’s one of the issues that a lot of kids who come from backgrounds that are not academic don’t realise: the spectrum of things that are there, that are possible as careers and as lives and areas of interest.

On the study of immunology

Immunology is the study of the host response predominantly to infection but also cancer, anything that goes wrong in fact.  And it’s very specific.  It’s against particular invading organisms.  We have very large, complex, multicellular, multi-organ systems that live a long time but bugs like viruses, bacteria, fungi are very small, they replicate very quickly and they change very quickly.  And they can adapt very quickly to subvert any defences that we can put up.  As a consequence we have this very sophisticated and very diverse immune system that has evolved over the last…the adaptive immune system and the very specific part of it that I study has evolved over about the last 400 million years.

On the constant battle against influenza

Firstly, there is an enormous range of influenza viruses maintained in aquatic birds.  It’s basically a disease of aquatic birds, it survives very well in water and it affects all sorts of different species.  And those strains occasionally jump across into other animals, mammals, seals, whales, pigs, and sometimes they jump across into us.  So that’s the source of the pandemic strains that worry us.  And then, of course, influenza’s one of these RNA viruses that has no real proofreading mechanism.  It mutates all the time and variants get selected that escape from the antibody response that normally controls it.  And that gives us a seasonal epidemic that we get every year or two.

So it’s constantly changing and it’ll never go away, it’s just we have to get better at handling it.  It’s a continuing struggle.  And that’s a mistake, ah, in the late 1960s for instance scientists, very prominent scientists, were saying the era of infectious disease is over.  Well, they kinda got it wrong.  They didn’t know about HIV, Ebola hadn’t appeared on the scene, and they had underestimated the constancy of this struggle.  They didn’t know about antibiotic resistance and so forth.  So it’s a constant battle and it’s not a battle that’ll ever go away.

On his Nobel Prize winning work

Well, these were very simple experiments that were done, the Nobel Prize winning work, very simple experiments that were done back in the 1970s.  We were looking at these, almost, ah, very recently in fact, analysed and discovered T lymphocytes, and we were looking at the killer T cells that actually kill other cells in culture, and studying them we found that they would only recognise cells if they shared transplantation types.  And we went from that to argue that the infection was in some way altering the self molecules, the transplantation molecules, that are very characteristic of all of us.  You know, when we get graft rejections it’s because we all differ within the spectrum of these things.  And that turned out ultimately to be true, although we couldn’t prove it at the time because the molecular technology wasn’t there.  And so it took 22 years from the discovery to the Nobel Prize.

Now that’s a common experience in the medical sciences.  If you look at this year’s [2014] Nobel Prize, the initial discovery and the index paper from the guy in London was published in, I think, the early 1970s again, so he’s waited 40 years for the Nobel Prize!  So, we don’t work on science to win Nobel Prizes, or any prizes, we work on science because we are fascinated by what we do and we try to understand how mechanisms work and that’s what drove us all those years.

And what happened was that questions that were obvious we tried to answer, and we got reasonable answers.  And then the technology got better and we went back to the questions again and the technology got better, and we got new questions as we went along, and the whole area just keeps opening out.  And so it’s been enormously gratifying to be part of something like this.

On The Peter Doherty Institute

This is an interesting initiative; the new institute we’re sitting in, which is named after me, which is very gratifying of course but a bit odd because you expect to be dead by the time you get something named after you.  It’s designed to try and bring the various elements of infectious disease research and practice in Melbourne together.  Melbourne is Australia’s leading scientific city for the biomedical sciences and we have very strong infectious disease research.  So what we’ve got is the university’s department of microbiology and immunology, which is a very strong department, and we’ve brought into that building the State Virus Diagnostic Laboratories, the people who are doing the Ebola diagnosis for instance, in this part of the country, the State Microbiology Diagnostic Labs, the World Health Organisation Influenza Centre, tuberculosis research, clinical infectious disease, professionals who work at the hospital across the street, their lab work is now here.  We have the SL4 labs which means we can handle the most dangerous pathogens and the idea is that by having a common institution, a common seminar room and common seminars, a common tea room where everyone will go, that we will develop and foster new interactions between the more applied aspects of microbiology and the more academic, and take advantage of the enormous advances, particularly in genomic science, to drive things forward, develop better diagnostic tests and then better solutions.

On being a science writer

I’ve been writing lay books both to try and talk about science to a broader community and also to try and educate myself so I don’t get bored, because one of the main things that  people like me suffer from is boredom, so we have to keep going and do things!  So, I’ve written books.  One of them is ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize, which is really just about how science is done.  Another about hot air because I got very interested in the climate change issue and wanted to read up and inform myself about it.  Sentinel Chickens, it occurred to me that if you’re looking at biological systems and environmental degradation and climate change and all the rest of it, the species that most closely, or are most closely watched, by bird watchers and alike, and most effectually monitor the natural world, are actually birds.  Some birds are at the top of the food chain, they monitor what toxins and so forth are going into our oceans.  Others live in various fragile habitats, if we degrade those habitats we’ll see decreases in numbers of those birds.  If we over fish the oceans, for instance, we see sea bird numbers decreasing, and we’re seeing all of that of course.  So these are, if you like, the sentinels for what’s happening in nature and in many cases what we’re doing to nature, and we need to take notice.  So that was the motivation behind writing that book.

On the state of science in Australia

With respect to science in Australia at the moment, we have a government which is strongly supporting medical science but it’s actually cut various science organisations that do environmental science, climate science and so forth, and I think this is disastrous and very short sighted and I hope we can reverse that.  And I hope that they will reverse their thinking and if they don’t, then I hope we can change the government.

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