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What sets Burnet apart from other institutions is its unique blend of medical research and public health expertise. Burnet is the only Australian medical research institute to also hold accreditation as a non-government organisation (NGO).
In 2019, with more than 380 staff and students, and a budget exceeding $47 million annually, the vision of Burnet’s founding Director Professor Ian Gust AO and its supporters has been realised.
Burnet can trace its origins to the passion and commitment of World War II veteran, Dr John Forbes who persuaded a donor, John Doble in the late 1950s to support the creation of a small virus laboratory at the Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne. From these early days at Fairfield, a world-renowned Institute was born.
Formerly known as The Queen’s Memorial Infectious Disease Hospital, Fairfield Hospital was founded at the turn of the 20th century when epidemics of infectious diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever and polio were rampant. The virology laboratory undertook clinical, diagnostic and research services for the many patients with viral infections under the directorship of Dr Alan Ferris.
Professor Ian Gust was appointed Director of the Virus Laboratory in 1971 and despite having less than 10 staff the laboratory had developed an international reputation for its work in hepatitis research. Among the many accomplishments of this laboratory were the isolation of hepatitis A virus (the strain now used in the hepatitis A vaccine) and one of the first strains of respiratory syncytial virus (the A2 strain, now a reference A group virus). Professor Gust was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 1992.
With the emergence of the HIV epidemic in Australia in the early 1980s, Fairfield Hospital and its virology laboratory became one of the primary centres for patient care, diagnostic services, public health reference and research into HIV and AIDS in Australia. But the Fairfield Hospital Research Centre needed capacity to grow so Professor Gust proposed it became an independent Institute, closely linked with Fairfield Hospital but with its own Board.
“Our point of differentiation from other research institutes would be a focus on ensuring that advances in basic research were translated into lasting health benefits, especially for people in the developing world,” Professor Ian Gust, AO.
In 1983, Sir Macfarlane Burnet became the founding patron of the new centre and following his death in August 1985, Professor Gust and the Burnet family agreed to change its name to the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research (later changed to the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health.
With the prestige and reputation of Sir Macfarlane Burnet’s name and the laboratory, the Institute attracted a number of important patrons, including the Chancellors and Deans of Medicine from Melbourne and Monash Universities and the Governor General. Officially launched in 1986, Richard Pratt, a well-known philanthropist accepted the challenge of raising $3 million for the establishment of the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research (MBC).
“Dick was both persuasive and effective: within 18 months we had reached our target and were able to make our first new appointment, Suzanne Crowe,” Professor Ian Gust, AO. (Professor Suzanne Crowe, AM, is now co-Head of Burnet’s Centre for Virology)
Always focused on the bigger picture of international health issues, Professor Gust supported Dr Nick Crofts (later Professor Crofts) to spend a year on a NHMRC Fellowship at the Communicable Diseases Surveillance Centre in London and then a year with the AIDS Branch at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.
In 1989, Dr Crofts set up a new Epidemiological Research Unit - the predecessor to Burnet’s Centre for Population Health – focusing on a surveillance program for HIV and other sexually transmissible infections (STIs) in Victoria.
“From its earliest days – or even before, in the work of its progenitors – the ethos at Burnet was that we were there to make a difference: to act upon the world to make it a better place,” Professor Nick Crofts.
(At right: Professor Nick Crofts and Professor Rob Moodie helped set up the International Health Unit).
Professor John Mills was appointed Director in 1992, following Professor Gust’s resignation in 1990.
Burnet’s current Deputy Director and Head of the Centre for International Health, Professor Mike Toole AM was lured from the CDC in Atlanta to join MBC by Professor Rob Moodie who was also to be involved in a small International Health Unit. They were joined by Dr Bruce Parnell, Dr Wendy Holmes and Dr Peter Deutschmann.
Their first major project was a large five-year HIV prevention program in Indonesia. During this period the Centre received accreditation from AusAID for the first time providing non-government organisation (NGO) status. MBC became a dual NGO, medical research accredited facility giving the Centre a unique space in Australia and the region. Further international expansion occurred with offices in Indonesia and Bali being established.
Housed in individual laboratories and portable buildings scattered over the Fairfield Hospital campus, a public appeal raised two million dollars to fit out new laboratories in an unused wing of the hospital. Completed in 1993, these new laboratories became the focus of the Centre’s’s research activities. A series of portable buildings were purchased to accommodate a growing Institute - many acquired through the generosity of Mr Ray Williams - which provided office space around the laboratory building.
Research programs were expanded especially those relating to HIV and hepatitis viruses. Work characterising a strain of HIV-1 potentially suitable as a live, attenuated vaccine received significant worldwide attention and was named one of the 10 most important discoveries in 1996 by the Advisory Council of the Harvard University Health Letter.
The Hepatitis Research Unit developed a new and improved diagnostic test for hepatitis E and the Epidemiology and Social research Unit (now Centre for Population Health) expanded significantly with the advent of the potential threat of the recently named hepatitis C virus.
The Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research was renamed The Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health reflecting the expanding international health and public health activities of the Institute.
After 15 years successful years at the former Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, the Burnet Institute joined one of Australia’s most significant medical research centres, the Alfred Medical Research and Education Precinct (AMREP) in Prahran, Melbourne. The AMREP project was the first in Australia to be purpose-built and managed, to achieve intellectual critical mass and scientific synergy, to share expensive resources and equipment, and to attract the highest calibre researchers from Australia and other countries.
The former Professor-Director of the Infectious Diseases Unit at the Alfred Hospital, Professor Steve Wesselingh was appointed Director in June 2002.
“The aspect of Burnet that I valued most as the combination of bioscience and public health research in the same institute,” Professor Wesselingh.
Under Professor Wesselingh’s directorship, the Institute forged strong relationships with the AMREP partners – The Alfred hospital, Baker IDI and Monash University – and oversaw the merger with the Austin Research Institute (ARI) in 2006.
A restructuring of the Institute’s research and public health programs saw the development of five Centres, which included the Centre for Virology, Centre for Immunology, Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research, Centre for Harm Reduction and Centre for International Health.
It brought together two groups of world-class researchers with significant benefits for research and development into infectious diseases, immunology and the development of vaccines. The merger recognised the need to build a greater critical mass of scientists to address the increasing concerns around a range of existing, new and emerging diseases. Originally housed across two campuses – at AMREP and the Austin Hospital – the final stage of the merger was completed in 2009 with all staff based at AMREP.
Planning commenced for the expansion of the Institute laboratory facilities which would eventually double the floor space available to researchers within the Alfred Centre Stage Two development.
The Centre for International Health expanded significantly during this period almost doubling in size, with the Institute having 11 offices located in seven countries in South East Asia, the Pacific and in Africa.
The Austin Research Institute’s staff and students were primarily focused on immunology but there was also an emphasis on translational research. Burnet’s quest to develop its immunology program to support vaccine research coupled with the benefit of new facilities led to the merger of ARI and Burnet.
Prior to the merger, the Austin Research Institute was an NHMRC accredited independent medical research institute located in the Kronheimer Building, in the grounds of the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg, Victoria, Australia. The Institute grew from the Research Centre for Cancer and Transplantation, a Centre of Excellence established at the University of Melbourne in 1982, and funded by Federal Government initiatives.
Both the Institute and the Research Centre were formed around research established by Professor Ian McKenzie upon his return to Australia in 1974 from the USA, where he worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Harvard Medical School and the Jackson Laboratories with Nobel Laureate, Dr George Snell. The Institute’s track record was one of success in innovation based medical research focused on manipulation of the immune system for the treatment of disease.
Professor Ian McKenzie retired at the end of 2002 following more than a decade of successful leadership.
Professor Mark Hogarth, who had worked at the Austin Research Institute since its establishment and headed the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Inflammatory Diseases Laboratory, was formerly Director of the ARI and became the Acting Director of the Burnet Institute from 2007 following the resignation of Professor Steve Wesselingh.
“The merger created a critical mass of Burnet virologists and Austin immunologists, generating sustainable funding and produced 21st Century, state-of-the-art facilities,” Professor Mark Hogarth.
Expansion of the Institute’s international health activities continued with the Burnet officially opening an office in Port Morseby, Papua New Guinea and the commencement of the AusAID-funded China-Australia Health and HIV/AIDS Facility in China.
The Co-operative Research Centre for Biomarker Translation was made official and the Burnet Clinical Research Laboratory was accredited as a World Health Organization Regional HIV Drug Resistance Laboratory.
Development beings on a low-cost rapid diagnostic test to measure CD4+ with funding received from Imperial College, London.
Professor Brendan Crabb appointed Director and CEO of Burnet Institute in 2008.
“In the past few years the Institute has broadened the scope of its work to include a greater range of infectious diseases such as malaria and influenza, and increased its strength in immunology, mainly to underpin the development of vaccines against diseases of global significance,” Professor Brendan Crabb, Director and CEO.
The new facility completed in early 2010, doubled the capacity of Burnet’s laboratory facilities and floor space to ensure future growth across programs. The new facilities facilitated the final phase in the merger with the Austin Research Institute enabling the relocation of all staff to the AMREP campus.
Malaria research expanded significantly with new appointments to the Institute and completion of the Ian Potter Malaria Research Laboratory.
The Centre for Harm Reduction merged with the Centre for International Health enabling a greater spread of harm reduction activities across the broad spectrum of international health activities.
Part of the five-year strategic plan enabling greater capacity for cross-Institute programs to be developed. The new themes included infectious diseases, maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive health, alcohol, other drugs and harm reduction, immunity, vaccines and immunisation, and young people’s health.
Strategically, the Institute unveiled a new mission statement to provide greater clarity about its focus.
Burnet aims ‘ to achieve better health for poor and vulnerable communities in Australia and internationally through research, education and public health.’
In addition, a new logo and tag line were developed and launched reflecting the global nature and translational aspect of Burnet’s focus.
The Centre for Population Health, in collaboration with researchers from other institutes, universities and organisations, was awarded a prestigious $2.5 million NHMRC grant to establish CREIDU.
Burnet Institute celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a major event at Government House, hosted by Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC.
A capacity crowd filled BMW Edge in Melbourne to hear Nobel Laureate Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi present the 2011 Burnet Oration. Professor Barré-Sinoussi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1983 together with her colleague, Professor Luc Montagnier.
The Institute’s CD4 T-cell test was showcased in the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) flagship publication, Ten of the Best Research Projects 2011.
The Fund named in honour of the late Sir Zelman Cowen, former Governor-General of Australia and Patron of the Burnet Institute, will provide support to Australian researchers with a focus on improving women’s and children’s health, especially in resource-poor settings.
Professor Brendan Crabb elected President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI).
Centre for Biomedical Research created
The Centres for Virology and Immunology were merged to create a highly competitive, innovative and cutting edge environment for more than 120 researchers and students.
A Institute flagship project aimed at providing life-saving health care for women and children through translational and community research in Papua New Guinea.
An ambitious Institute strategic plan to create a more focused, program-led organisation that harnesses our remarkable technical breadth to help solve devastating health problems.
Five thematic programs created: Maternal and Child Health, Disease Elimination, Behaviours and Health Risks, Health Security, and Healthy Ageing.
Burnet’s researchers leading efforts to eliminate hepatitis C in Australia through this flagship project.
A record-breaking 263 peer-reviewed publications for the Institute and AUD$47 million spent on improving health for vulnerable communities.