MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR
Melbourne Laureate Professor Sharon Lewin
Despite the high infection numbers from the spread of Omicron in early 2022, the year marked the beginning of a slow return to normal with many of our staff now coming in to work regularly, traveling to meet with colleagues nationally and internationally and reactivating research programs that were placed on hold given the demands of the COVID-19 response.
While there was increased activity in other areas, some COVID-19 research continued and culminated in several exciting advances. Two Melbourne-made candidate vaccines completed Phase I clinical trials, one from the Doherty Institute and the other from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), with participants receiving their first doses in 2022. The candidates are distinct from existing vaccines that are in use around the globe because they focus the immune response on the tip of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Driving our science into a clinical trial is an important milestone for the Doherty Institute and demonstrated the great power that can be harnessed through collaboration.
This type of vaccine research is an excellent example of some of the ambitious focus areas we have prioritised in the Doherty Institute Strategic Plan 2022–2027. Launched in 2022, the Strategic Plan will steer our work during a highly anticipated period of growth and expansion over the next five years.
Another focus area is the development of the $650 million Australian Institute for Infectious Disease (AIID), a new facility designed to protect Australia and the region against infectious diseases and future pandemics. The AIID will be the largest centre of expertise in the Southern Hemisphere. The Doherty Institute, Burnet Institute and the University of Melbourne are Foundation Partners, with the Victorian Government as the Major Supporting Partner. In 2022, we built a collaborative alliance of leading experts and working with an outstanding team of architects and engineers, we developed a concept design for the future facility.
An unprecedented boost to another critical field of research was the launch of the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics. The Centre was established from the largest philanthropic gift to medical research in Australian history – an extraordinarily generous $250 million donation from Canadian philanthropist and businessman Mr Geoff Cumming. The Victorian Government also recognises the importance of therapeutics research and contributed a further $75 million. This spectacular new initiative aims to save millions of lives during future pandemics by advancing the science behind therapeutics, a field where progress has lagged when compared with vaccine development.
Like all great organisations, many people from outside the Institute contribute their time, energy and advice towards making an impact and helping us to realise our vision. I was delighted to welcome Mr Martyn Myer AO as the new Chair of the Doherty Council. Martyn is the first independent Chair of the Council and his past success in the medical research sector and leading ambitious development programs will be invaluable to the Institute as we enter an era of growth.
I would especially like to thank the outgoing Chair, Professor Christine Kilpatrick, the former Chief Executive of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, who was remarkable in her leadership of the Doherty Council for three years, including through the challenges of the pandemic. Christine made significant contributions to our COVID-19 response and played a very supportive role at a time of significant demands on our staff.
The Doherty Institute is privileged to have a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) comprising distinguished researchers who advise our strategic research programs. After holding the last meeting via Zoom, we were excited to invite the board back to Melbourne for a two-day face-to-face meeting in September 2022. During her visit, Nobel Prize Laureate Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, member of the SAB, also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne in recognition of her major contributions to HIV, virology and medicine.
Having spent my career in the response to another major global pandemic, I was humbled to be elected the President of the International AIDS Society in August 2022, a global organisation with over 17,000 members. At the same time, Brisbane was announced as the location for the 12th IAS Conference on HIV Science. This spotlight on Australia presents an ideal opportunity to highlight Australia’s outstanding response to HIV infection over the last four decades, as well as accelerate research for an HIV cure and vaccine, to provide momentum for an inclusive response to HIV and to re-affirm our commitment to improving the lives of people living with HIV in our region and globally.
As always, my thanks go to all Doherty Institute staff, graduate researchers and supporters who have worked hard throughout another outstanding year as we head towards a bright and exciting future.
MESSAGE FROM THE PATRON
Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty
I closed my message for last year’s Impact Report with this:
“By the time we had our first Omicron case in December, the situation was set for a great public health 'experiment' that would tell us how well a population that was heavily vaccinated against an increasingly distant SARS-CoV-2 variant would fare in an increasingly open society. But that’s a story for 2022.”
And yes, 2022 was yet another chapter in the long haul that is COVID-19, but one that was very different from the previous two years. As the new year dawned, the “experiment” I referred to had already well and truly played out – Omicron was rampant. Despite tens of thousands of cases being reported daily across Australia, we began to move into a new phase of the pandemic, “living with COVID”.
Every person on the planet has an opinion about the public health measures, vaccine mandates and so forth, that were put in place throughout the pandemic. Australia’s Actuaries Institute (Actuaries describe themselves as the nerds of accounting – they go into great depth to analyse a matter to understand and advise on risk) put out a very good report up until the end of 2022. It showed very clearly that the policies pursued here protected large numbers of people. By my calculation, Australia has, in fact, had about a third of the number of deaths that would've occurred if, say, we had proceeded in the way the United States and the United Kingdom did.
As the general population moved to “living with COVID”, we did too at the Doherty Institute. While we still work on COVID across all facets, we remain steady in our vision and continue to monitor and investigate the breath of infectious diseases across the infection and immunity spectrum. We were therefore well prepared when two surprising infectious diseases – Japanese encephalitis and mpox (formerly monkeypox) - suddenly emerged on the local scene.
The appearance of Japanese encephalitis on the Murray River in February was a huge surprise for everyone (I wrote about it in editions 97-99 of my weekly column, Setting it Straight). I knew we’d had a couple of cases of this flavivirus in the far north of the country, but to suddenly find it down on the Murray River meant this virus had moved into Australia, with that likely being a consequence of planetary warming and climate change. With increased periods of extreme wetness, extreme dryness and increased warmth, it’s long been predicted that mosquito-borne infections would increasingly move into temperate zones.
Of course, the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) at the Doherty Institute was onto both outbreaks right away. They detected the first case of Japanese encephalitis in South Australia and led the surveillance program for Victoria, as well as establishing a Commonwealth-funded program to build testing capacity across the country. They also diagnosed Australia’s first cases of mpox in June and worked closely with health clinics and the Australian Department of Health to inform the public health response. VIDRL is a highly professional organisation, and we are privileged that it is part of our Institute.
Another major coup for the Institute in 2022 was the announcement of the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics, thanks to the incredible gift of $250 million from Geoff Cumming. This Centre is enormously important because the other way of handling infections aside from vaccination, is the way that HIV has been handled, with small molecule (drug) therapy. Billions of dollars were poured into vaccine experiments for HIV and they just didn't work because the virus changes too quickly. But there are several families of viruses that need these antiviral drugs, and the Cumming Global Centre will focus on discovery research to create novel strategies for identifying and developing such therapeutics. When built, laboratories funded by the Centre will be housed in the Australian Institute for Infectious Disease (AIID), which will increase the footprint of the current Doherty Institute by 50 per cent and provide a new physical home for our colleagues at the Burnet Institute.
Geoff Cumming’s extraordinary gift shows us just how transformational philanthropic support can be. Apart from putting in place a new scientific dimension “on the ground” in Parkville, it provides incredible flexibility that allows us to move fast with employing key personnel, especially young researchers, and with the initial exploration of innovative and different pathways. And, if you’re a philanthropist looking to improve outcomes in infectious diseases, there’s plenty more scope within the Doherty Institute and AIID.
Beyond philanthropy, Australia has to increase government spending – whether through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) or Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) – across the board if we want to stay in the league of developed nations. At present, our NHMRC is only funding 10 per cent of submitted grants, with the optimal outcome being about 30 per cent to maintain a healthy research landscape. While we may see the MRFF come under closer peer review in the future, having it as a relatively flexible fund at the disposal of the Minister was enormously important during COVID-19, as resources could be allocated quickly in a time when rapid responses were essential.
In November, a personal highlight was attending the 50th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Immunology (ASI). Rolf Zinkernagel (who came out from Zurich) and I were asked to say a few words as it was 25 years since we were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He's been retired now for some years, and I'm now formally retired at age 82. I worked for way longer than I intended, but COVID-19 is part of the reason. As I wrote in the centenary edition of Setting it Straight, one of the many things that was never on my personal radar was the idea of being a weekly columnist. The idea of writing on "all things infection and immunity" came from Rebecca Elliott, who heads our communications effort and has been my editor. The first appeared on 6 April, 2020 and they were predominantly focused on COVID-19. By the time I got to edition 120, I decided it was time to stop because I had said what I needed to say, or could say, and we were getting way ahead of the available data. That information is slowly emerging in peer-reviewed publications, though it may take several years before a more incisive analysis of the disease we call COVID-19 can be formulated.
While COVID-19 was catastrophic on so many fronts, it reminded us all that we need continued research and investment in pandemic preparedness. That means supporting the next generation of the infection and immunity workforce, both on the public health and the laboratory and clinical research fronts.
With challenge comes opportunity. COVID-19 (which could have been much worse) both put us on a steep learning curve and enabled the roll-out of analytical, preventive and therapeutic strategies that had long been in development. There are obvious paths to follow, a few of which might just lead to major highways. As always in science, the task is to commit to the long term, while at the same time being able to recognise breakthroughs and “seize the day”.
2022 IN NUMBERS
As we present the Doherty Institute’s Impact Report for 2022, we are excited to spotlight the remarkable outcomes achieved thanks to our dedicated supporters. Philanthropy propels the vital work conducted by our scientists and researchers, strengthening the impact of their expertise in the lab, in clinical settings, and beyond.
Total annual income
The Doherty Institute is a joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital, with a governance structure that supports integration and fosters collaboration, strong leadership and management, creating a unified organisation.
In 2022, we welcomed our first independent chair to the Doherty Institute Council, Martyn Myer AO. Martyn’s expertise in strategy, governance, stakeholder engagement and philanthropy will play a vital role in facilitating the Doherty Institute’s vision.
We sincerely thank Professor Christine Kilpatrick AO for her leadership as chair of the Doherty Institute Council during the past three years.
The Doherty Institute acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders, past, present and future.