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David de Kretser Awards celebrate determination in medical science

23 February 2009

The Faculty recently acknowledged two men who stood fearlessly by their theories and discoveries, forever changing medical knowledge.

Recognising the long-standing contribution of Governor of Victoria to the Monash Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, the annual David de Kretser awards celebrate two great minds of medical science. This year, the awards touched upon the themes of disease, reproduction, microbiology and stem cell research.

At a ceremony held at Government House on Thursday 12 February, 2009, IVF pioneer and stem cell biologist Professor Alan Trounson received the David de Kretser Medal, which recognises an exceptional contribution to the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences.

Professor Trounson began his scientific career with sheep. His work on reproductive technology in animals had a profound impact on livestock technologies around the world. He joined Monash in 1977 to work with Dr Carl Wood on reproductive technologies for humans, and made headlines in 1980 when he and the rest of Professor Wood’s team delivered Australia’s first IVF baby.

He pioneered further IVF techniques, and in the late 1990s moved into stem cell sciences. In 2000, his team announced that it 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.

Professor Trounson served as Director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories until 2007. Other roles at Monash included 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

In 2007, Professor Trounson was appointed to the position of President of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine – a $3 billion agency founded to support and advance stem cell research and regenerative medicine.

The Lifetime Achievement Award, which celebrates an individual who has made an outstanding contribution, both nationally and internationally, to human health and wellbeing, was awarded to Professor Michael Alpers AO.

Professor Alpers is John Curtin Distinguished Professor of International Health at Curtin University in Western Australia. He has spent his life studying the degenerative neurological illness kuru, which was endemic to a small cultural group in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea until the last century.

His studies combined cultural, behavioural, clinical, epidemiological and biomedical aspects, and ultimately led to his ground-breaking conclusion that kuru was transmitted through the mortuary practices of the community, whereby the community collectively consumed the bodies of relatives who had died. The last kuru sufferer died in 2005, and provided that no new case appears by 2010 – this devastating illness will be considered to have died out.

He studied the microbiology of kuru in collaboration with Dr Carlton Gajdusek, who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the disease in 1976. Their transmission experiments revealed the disease as the first human spongiform encephalopathy, an illness caused by prions.

Prions are infectious, self-reproducing pathogens comprised of mis-folded proteins. Professor Alpers’ work provided vital building blocks in their discovery and understanding.

Read the biography of Professor Alan Trounson

Read the biography of Professor Michael Alpers AO

View the awards slide show (opens in new window)

David de Kretser Awards celebrate determination in medical science

Clockwise from top-left: Rod Chadwick, Monash University Medical Foundation Chairman; Monash University Chancellor, Dr Alan Finkel; Professor Steve Wesselingh, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences; award recipient Professor Alan Trounson; the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC; and award recipient Professor Michael Alpers AO.