From foundations to future
Burnet can trace its origins back to the passion and commitment of World War II veteran Dr John Forbes who, in the late 1950s, persuaded John Doble to fund the creation of a small virus laboratory at the Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne.
At first, the lab focused on infectious diseases that were common in the early 20th century: diphtheria, scarlet fever and polio. By the 1970s, under the leadership of Professor Ian Gust, it had developed an international reputation for its work in hepatitis research, particularly the isolation of the hepatitis A strain.
The immense challenge of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s proved a turning point. In response to the growing and increasingly diverse workload of patient care, diagnostic services, and public health research, Professor Gust proposed that the laboratory establish itself as an independent body, closely linked with Fairfield Hospital, but with its own Board.
In 1983, Sir Macfarlane Burnet came on board as the founding patron of the new body. Following his death in 1985, it was proposed that the fledgling institute be named the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research, in his honour.
The Gust Years (1986-1992)
The Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research was officially launched in 1986, with Professor Gust as Director, and philanthropist Richard Pratt as a key supporter.
In the years that followed, the Centre took on ever greater responsibilities, researching and delivering solutions for public health issues, and ensuring they could be accessed, equitably, by people everywhere.
“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.
Professor Gust supported Dr Nick Crofts (later Professor Crofts) to pursue studies into communicable diseases at the Communicable Diseases Surveillance Centre in London and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. On his return to Australia in 1989, Dr Crofts set up a new Epidemiological Research Unit, focusing on a surveillance program for HIV and other sexually transmissible infections (STIs).
“From its earliest days, 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.
The Mills Years (1992-2002)
Professor John Mills was appointed Director in 1992, following Professor Gust’s resignation. Early in his tenure, the International Health Unit was established, led by Professor Rob Moodie and Professor Mike Toole AM, with Dr Bruce Parnell, Dr Wendy Holmes and Dr Peter Deutschmann.
The first major project for the International Health Unit was a five-year HIV-prevention program in Indonesia. It was during this period that AusAID first accredited the Centre as a non-government organisation (NGO), reflecting its genuinely unique blend of expertise and capacity. Offices in Indonesia were soon established.
As the Centre grew, it took up residence in a series of individual laboratories and portable buildings scattered all over the Fairfield Hospital campus. A public appeal raised two million dollars to fit out new laboratories in an unused wing of the hospital. Additional office space was supplied by a series of portable buildings, many acquired through the generosity of Mr Ray Williams.
Research into HIV continued at pace, with the identification of the HIV-1 sub-type by the Centre’s research team named as one of the ten most important discoveries of 1996 by the Advisory Council of the Harvard University Health Letter.
In the same period, the Centre developed a new and improved diagnostic test for hepatitis E, and expanded its research operations in response to the emerging threat of the recently named hepatitis C virus.
With an increasing focus on international health and public health, the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research was renamed The Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health. After 15 successful years at Fairfield Hospital, the ‘Burnet Institute’ began planning for a move to the Alfred Medical Research and Education Precinct (AMREP) in Prahran, Melbourne.
The Wesselingh Years (2002-2007)
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 was 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 AMREP partners the Baker Institute, Monash University and The Alfred hospital. In 2006, Burnet merged with the Austin Research Institute (ARI), a development that prompted the restructuring of the Institute’s research and public health programs and supported the development of five new centres: the Centre for Virology, Centre for Immunology, Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research, Centre for Harm Reduction and Centre for International Health.
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. Soon, planning commenced for the expansion of the Institute laboratory facilities with the aim of doubling the floor space available to researchers. The Centre for International Health, in particular, expanded significantly during this period, establishing 11 offices in seven countries across South East Asia, the Pacific and Africa.
The McKenzie Years (1991-2002) - The Austin Research Institute (ARI)
Prior to the merger with Burnet, the ARI was an independent medical research institute located in the grounds of the Austin Hospital in Melbourne’s Heidelberg. It was founded largely on the work of Professor Ian McKenzie who had worked extensively with Nobel Laureate, Dr George Snell in the USA.
Professor McKenzie retired at the end of 2002 following more than a decade of successful leadership, during which time the ARI led research into the treatment of cancer and other diseases using the most recent advances in genetic engineering and immunology.
The Hogarth Years (2007-2008)
Professor Mark Hogarth, who had worked at the ARI since its inception 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.
The newly merged Institute’s international activities continued to expand while Professor Hogarth was at the helm, with the launch of an office in Papua New Guinea, and the commencement of the AusAID-funded China-Australia Health and HIV/AIDS Facility in China. At the same time, Burnet’s Clinical Research Laboratory was accredited as a Regional HIV Drug Resistance Laboratory by the World Health Organization (WHO), and work commenced on a low-cost, rapid diagnostic test to measure CD4+ cells and identify early cases of HIV infection.
The Crabb Years (2008-present)
Professor Brendan Crabb AC was appointed Director and CEO of Burnet Institute in 2008. In conversation with long-time Chair of Burnet, Alastair Lucas AO, Professor Crabb reflected on the importance of establishing Burnet as a strong institution, characterised by integrity and sustainability, and capable of making a significant contribution, locally and globally, over the long term. He wanted to ensure the Institute was in a position not only to develop technical solutions, but to overcome the inequities that might prevent those solutions from reaching people in need.
“I think we first started to be very clear about who we were, with a focus on equity, poverty, marginalised people, vulnerable people. Then we decided that being entrepreneurial was not incompatible with that. In fact, it is necessary. And then, the third thing is that we are not afraid of a really substantial organisational shake-up.” Professor Crabb AC.
In the 15 years between 2008 and 2023, Professor Crabb and the leadership team took steps to transform Burnet into an institution with a strong sense of purpose, able to pursue its goals in novel ways, and willing to take control of its own destiny.
A humanitarian mission
By the time Burnet merged with the Austin Research Institute in 2006, it had gained a formidable reputation for making progress in some of the world’s most disadvantaged and challenging places, on seemingly intransigent health issues. The Austin had an outstanding reputation for medical research in areas including genetics and immunology, but under Professor Crabb’s leadership the merged entity had reaffirmed its focus on health equity. The organisation would direct all of its resources and expertise towards ensuring that good health was within the reach of every individual, with no-one left behind and no circumstance deemed too hard or too risky.
Since then, Burnet has consistently taken up the good fight against stigma and injustice. We fought to ensure that people who inject drugs were included in prevention and treatment programs for hepatitis C, and developed all-new insights into how the disease was spread, and how it should be managed across the population. As a result of that work, elimination of hep C in Australia looks likely in the near future.
We continued our pioneering work on HIV and AIDS, leading the world with lab-based discoveries, and community-led interventions for education and prevention. In particular, we worked hard to ensure the benefits of early diagnosis were available to communities across the globe, developing a robust and affordable diagnostic test (VISITECT CT4) that was endorsed by the WHO in 2020.
We helped to stabilise the tuberculosis emergency in Papua New Guinea’s Western Province, supporting the provincial government with a technical assistance program that involves working with local services to plan, design and implement public health responses.
Ongoing work includes working closely with researchers and health workers in Papua New Guinea to improve maternal and child health; rallying infectious disease experts from Australia to work with local frontline teams in countries where malaria remains an endemic threat; and maintaining a leadership role in the national and global response to COVID-19.
An integrated approach
In the Australian context, Burnet is the only medical research institute to hold accreditation as a non-government organisation (NGO), encompassing three critical and highly specialised areas of expertise: world-class lab-based medical research; ground-breaking public health work: and international programs to protect the fundamental human right to good health around the globe.
In 2017, Professor Crabb and the leadership team made a bold decision to collapse the disciplinary silos, and reconfigure the organisation on the basis of three core ambitions: eliminating the threat of disease; preparing health systems and populations for future pandemics; and ensuring that women, children, and young people have fair and reasonable access to the health support they need.
The new approach linked medical researchers to fieldworkers, hastening the delivery of innovative new tools and treatments. And it linked fieldworkers to the labs, creating a feedback loop to support the development of truly equitable medical innovations that could be implemented not only in affluent nations with stable health systems, but in communities around the globe.
Research was also embedded into international programs, creating opportunities to learn from past experiences and ensure that limited resources were being used in the most efficient and effective way.
“We still have that disciplinary strength, but that’s not the power structure of the institution. The power structure is, for example, what are we doing for mums and bubs? What are we doing to eliminate infectious diseases? What are we doing for pandemic preparedness? That’s where the power is now. That’s where the business units are. That’s where the accountability is.” Professor Brendan Crabb AC
An entrepreneurial edge
The third priority of Professor Crabb’s tenure has been to achieve financial independence for Burnet. He and the leadership team approached this challenge by centralising all revenue streams into a single unit charged with pursuing opportunities for commercialisation and income-generation.
In 2020, the sale of Burnet’s ‘real estate’ assets at Commercial Road helped place the Institute in a significantly strong financial position. It meant Burnet could pursue opportunities more readily and with a more entrepreneurial mindset.
Commercialisation of promising medical innovations in the past had yielded success stories, most notably the affordable and rapid
point-of-care test for HIV that, in 2020, was endorsed by the WHO and is now widely used in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Burnet also had success with income-generating businesses like 360BioLabs, a contract research agency that supplied high quality clinical trial support. The sale of the business in 2021 generated profit, providing Burnet with the means to invest in new initiatives, including the Australian Institute for Infectious Disease (AIID). The AIID aims to protect Australia and the wider Asia-Pacific region against major global health issues and pandemics. It is a collaborative initiative of foundation partners Burnet Institute, the Doherty Institute and The University of Melbourne, with funding from the Victorian Government.
Now, learning from both the successes and the failures of the past, Burnet is moving to an ‘industry-ready’ footing, embedding the frameworks of potential commercial partners into its own operations to radically reduce the commercialisation timeline.
“The Institute has gained control of its future. And we set out to do that.” Professor Brendan Crabb AC.
2023 and beyond
With Professor Crabb still at the helm and its financial future secured, Burnet is exceptionally well placed to continue working towards a more equitable world through better health, deep into the 21st century.
Read our latest annual report here.
In 2023, we are focused on the mission to eliminate hepatitis C, through the Eliminate Hepatitis C Australia Partnership (EC Australia); to support the delivery of life-saving health care for women and children in Papua New Guinea through the Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies program; to help keep our region safe from global health challenges and pandemics through the AIID; and to make life-changing tools and technologies available to the world’s most vulnerable populations through the Burnet Diagnostics Initiative.
The foundations laid down over the past decade and a half have created the conditions for further innovation and success – all of them steps along the road to a better, healthier world in which no-one is left behind.
“The ultimate problem we’re working on is global poverty and how it affects health. What are we going to do to materially change that?” Professor Brendan Crabb AC.