When Doug Hilton accepted a job as a researcher in a blood cancer lab at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research as a university student in the mid-1980s it was love at first sight.
“It sounds really weird, but I just fell in love with the place,” the molecular biologist and Melburnian of the Year, said. “I had this incredible privilege of being able to walk into a lab and follow my curiosity and not know where it was going to lead me.”
Like many enduring love stories, there have been ups and downs, but arguably no greater challenge for Professor Hilton, who is now director of the research institute, than steering Australia’s brightest minds through the biggest global health crisis in recent history.
“Coronavirus has shaken us,” the 56-year-old said. “We feel a really deep responsibility to help tackle it. It has been the wake-up call the world needed to be better prepared for the next pandemic.”
Under Professor Hilton’s leadership, scientists at Australia’s oldest medical research centre have pioneered promising discoveries, putting them on the cusp of developing antibody therapies to block coronavirus from entering cells.
In August, researchers at the institute found a chemical combination which has the potential to be a game-changer in the fight against the virus for its ability to block a key coronavirus protein.
The protein known as PLpro is what allows the virus to invade the immune system and multiply within human cells, stopping the body from fighting back.
Professor Hilton’s team of medical researchers, mathematicians, immunologists, protein and medicinal chemists, have also led global research in unlocking one of the pandemic’s most perplexing mysteries: how immunity to coronavirus develops.
“We now know that it is possible to mount an immune response to the virus,” Professor Hilton said.
“What we want to know now is how long this immunity lasts and why some people can be infected with the virus and have no symptoms and others can be infected with the virus and it can be a catastrophe.”
A team of scientists at the institute is examining blood samples from those who have survived coronavirus to determine how long they are protected from future COVID-19 infection.
The institute is also leading a trial using anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine on healthcare workers to see if it can prevent coronavirus infection.
While global studies suggest the controversial drug does not work as a treatment for the pathogen, Professor Hilton believes there is merit in testing its ability as a preventative after thousands of healthcare workers were infected with the virus during Victoria’s second wave.
Professor Hilton was also recognised by the City of Melbourne for his role in championing gender equality in science after he pushed to build an on-site childcare centre at the institute allowing staff to transition back into research after having children.
“It’s just a matter of decency,” Professor Hilton said. “Anybody in the community who has a talent for science and a talent for research should be able to enter that profession and flourish. We are trying to tackle exceptionally difficult problems and to do that properly we need to draw upon the most creative people in our community.”
Professor Hilton, who was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia in 2016 for distinguished service to medical research, credits the institute’s success to the collaborative culture between researchers at hospitals, universities and research institutes in Melbourne.
“It’s been very inspiring to see even deeper collaborations occur in response to the pandemic,” he said. “In a sense having researchers just cheer each other on and knowing that whoever makes the best breakthrough we are all going to get behind them.”
To be crowned Melburnian of the Year by the City of Melbourne at a time when science was at the forefront of the world, “was a huge honour and extremely humbling,” Professor Hilton said.
The father-of-two describes himself as a quintessential Melburnian having grown up in the outer eastern suburbs, attending Warrandyte Primary School, East Doncaster High School and then Monash University and the University of Melbourne.
“I love this city,” he said. “It’s a huge huge honour, especially for an award to occur in a year Victorians have done it tough. We have really supported each other and got behind the interventions that have enabled us to go from a really dangerous position of 700 a cases a day to three weeks of double-doughnut days in a row. It makes you proud to be a Melburnian.”