Professor Alan Trounson is a world-renowned IVF pioneer and stem cell biologist who began his career undertaking research not in human reproduction but with females of the woolly kind.
He originally hoped to work in agriculture and, after finishing high school, headed off to the School of Wool and Pastoral Studies at the University of New South Wales, where he received his Bachelor of Science in 1968 and Master of Science in 1971 for studying the reproductive characteristics of Merino sheep.
Early signs that his work would lead to investigating human infertility appeared in his 1974 PhD thesis from Sydney University’s Faculty of Agriculture: Studies on the development of fertilized sheep ova.
Professor Trounson soon changed the face of livestock breeding around the world when he developed novel techniques for non-surgical embryo collection and transfer, followed by work on embryo splitting and freezing. The methods he developed are largely the same as those used today and were used by Professor Trounson to establish the Australian Gene Storage Resource Centre of Australia for the conservation of genetic material derived from endangered species.
After three years at the Agricultural Research Council Research Centre in Cambridge, he returned to Australia and has told The Lancet that when Dr Carl Wood – Foundation Professor of the Monash Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology – called him with a job offer, he accepted because “it was the only job going at the time in Australia”.
Professor Trounson thus joined Monash in 1977 and immediately applied the techniques he had honed with livestock reproduction to the treatment of human infertility. He made headlines in 1980 when he and the rest of Professor Wood’s team delivered Australia’s first IVF baby. Nine of the world’s first ten IVF pregnancies began at Monash and Time Magazine stated that Professor Trounson was one of the two major contributors to the scientific developments that established these methodologies.
The lead-up to this first IVF conception met with outrage from some members of the community, famously leading to private detectives rummaging through his garbage and graffiti appearing on the walls of his home.
Nevertheless, after overcoming initial resistance, IVF technologies are now globally accepted, with 9,291 IVF babies born in Australia in 2006 – a figure thought to have risen by approximately five per cent each year, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Building on his IVF expertise, Professor Trounson went on to pioneer now commonplace IVF techniques such as the use of fertility drugs, systems for egg collection and embryo donation for infertile females, embryo freezing, and sperm injection techniques for male infertility and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for inheritable diseases.
While still at the forefront of IVF research and development, in 1998 Professor Trounson dramatically changed the direction of his research to embrace the new field of stem cell research.
This led, in 2000, to the announcement that his team had found that nerve stem cells could be derived from embryonic stem cells – a discovery that triggered world interest in the potential of stem cells to help cure many diseases.
He again faced vitriolic criticism from a number of conservative groups at this time, but he became a prominent advocate for the legalisation of embryonic stem cell research in Australia, and was met with personal attacks on the floor of Federal Parliament.
While undertaking his pioneering research, Professor Trounson held multiple prestigious positions at Monash, including Director of the Centre for Early Human Development, Deputy Director of the Institute for Reproduction and Development, as well as personal chairs in Obstetrics and Gynaecology/Paediatrics, and in Stem Cell Sciences.
He was the inaugural CEO of the Australian Stem Cell Centre in 2002 and was appointed to the role of Director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories which was established in 2003 to bring together and lead Monash’s interests in stem cells and tissue repair.
In 2007, Professor Trounson confirmed his role as one of the world’s leading minds in stem cell sciences when he was appointed permanent President of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine – a $3 billion agency founded to support and advance stem cell research and regenerative medicine. He also serves on the Science Advisory Board of the Genetics Policy Institute.
Professor Trounson’s scientific journey has touched upon sheep, infants and microscopic cells, and delivered into his hands the management of one of the biggest medical research budgets in the world.
Nevertheless, in an interview with the ABC in April last year, he confessed that “I still wake up at night thinking I’m in the laboratory”.