Ian Gust Claims Peter Wills Medal for Lifesaving Research

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An unsung hero of Australian biomedical research is recognised.

Few scientists on the planet could claim to have developed a vaccine that is proven to prevent a disease, let alone more than one such vaccine.

Fewer still could say they worked to get that vaccine not only out of a lab and into the population, but available to people across the world, not just people on high incomes or in developed countries.

One such person is Professor Ian Gust AO, whose work has contributed to the saving of thousands of people.

Throughout his long, distinguished career Professor Gust developed the Hepatitis A vaccination, was a significant contributor to the team that developed the Hepatitis B vaccination and was instrumental in development of the world’s first papilloma virus vaccine, Gardasil.

Professor Gust, former Chair of the Biomedical Research Victoria Board and a long-term friend, has been a global champion for health and medical research for more than half a century. Last night, he was announced as the 2016 recipient of the prestigious Peter Wills Medal, the highest of the Research Australia Health and Medical Research Awards, at a presentation ceremony at the Westin Hotel in Sydney.

See Ian Gust’s story here:

See his Peter Wills Medal acceptance speech here:

As a medical graduate with a post-doc stint as a WHO Fellow at the Glasgow University Regional Virus Laboratory under his belt, Ian Gust had chosen virology as his passion and career.

In 1970 he returned to Melbourne to become the Medical Virologist at Fairfield Hospital, where he and his team became the first to grow the Hepatitis A virus in tissue culture. With the virus isolated, Gust and his team isolated antibodies against Hepatitis A. Gust continued his research in 1978 while at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland in the US where he and his colleagues isolated a vigorous strain of the Hepatitis A virus from a sample sent from Australia.

“Without a doubt the most exciting moment was that early Sunday morning at NIH when I looked down the microscope and recognised that we’d isolated Hepatitis A virus in cell culture and therefore had the potential to make a vaccine,” Gust said.

This isolated Hepatitis A virus became the source of both live and attenuated vaccines later used to develop the world’s first licensed Hepatitis A vaccine. Since 1993, when this vaccine was first introduced, around 2 billion doses have been sold and Hepatitis A has been effectively eliminated in the developed world.

But Ian Gust was only getting started.

In 1984, the Fairfield virology laboratory became one of the first in the world to establish assays for the detection of what became known as HIV. Later that year, when it became evident that HIV was also in the blood transfusion service, Gust designed a system to urgently evaluate the five commercial assays then under development for the detection of the virus. Assays were then introduced into the Australian blood bank system and into public health laboratories.

As a founding member of the National AIDS Taskforce and, later, the Federal Government’s Chief Advisor on medical and scientific aspects of AIDS, Gust played a crucial role in controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS compared to other countries. His actions, amongst many others at the time, spared thousands of Australians from an early death from what was then a fatal illness.

In 1986 Gust became a member of the International Task Force on Hepatitis B Immunization, started because the then current vaccine was too costly for developing nations, where the disease was most destructive. The Taskforce lobbied to make a Hepatitis B vaccine the first new vaccine added to the WHO’s Expanded Program for Immunization, thus facilitating its widespread availability in poorer nations.

Ian Gust also became the founder of the Burnet Institute, which recently celebrated its 30th birthday.

As head of Research and Development at CSL between 1991 and 2000, Gust was instrumental in acquiring the intellectual property rights to the research that was to form the basis for the collaborative development of the world’s first Papilloma virus vaccine, Gardasil – which was approved in the US in 2006 and is now approved in over 120 countries.

From 1992 to 2006, Gust has directed the WHO International Reference Centre for Influenza and, with directors of centers in London, Tokyo and Atlanta, was responsible for recommending strains of the virus to be included in each year’s vaccine formulation.

Research Australia’s CEO, Nadia Levin, said Professor Gust is extraordinarily deserving of the peak award from her organisation, which represents 160 organisations in health and medical research.

“Prof Gust took a then-unconventional path into virology after his first degree, which shaped his career. It was a move that people across the world essentially owe their lives to,” she said.

“The Professor’s passion, drive and community work has led him to be one of Australia’s foremost medical exports, and one of the world’s most valued assets to global health. He is already internationally-renowned for his contributions in the health and medical research space, and this award is our sector recognising his position as a leader in our field.”

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Professor Gust has been a member, consultant or advisor to 28 WHO Committees and Taskforces.

He has also been a key member of the Children’s Vaccine Initiative, the International Task Force on Hepatitis B Immunization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Children’s Vaccine Program, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, the International Vaccine Institute, the Paediatric Dengue Vaccine Initiative and more.

Associate Professor Jan Tennent, Director of Biomedical Research Victoria, said that “Ian Gust is one of Australia’s scientific unsung heroes. His research and advocacy for global public health has literally saves hundreds of thousands of lives. This award is fully deserved but, knowing Ian, he will just think it’s all a bit of a fuss about nothing,” she said.

“I’m glad that Ian and his remarkable career are getting the recognition and kudos he fully deserves,” she added.

Looking back at his career, Gust said that he has had a “very fortunate life”.

“I’m lucky to have joined a relatively uncluttered field just as it was about to be transformed by modern technology,” he recalled. And “lucky to have lived long enough to see some of the diseases that I’ve worked on brought under control and, in the case of Hepatitis A, virtually eliminated.”

Really, the world is lucky to have him.

When asked about any advice he has for young biomedical researchers interested in a career today, Gust said to treat it like surfing:

“Get out in front of the wave,” he said, smiling. “When you see a decent wave coming towards you, swim like hell and try and catch it all the way to the shore.”