Nobel Prize winning scientist and world renowned veterinarian Professor Peter Doherty talks to Alison Lee about his career and the scientific challenges facing the world today
The world’s first vet school was founded in 1761 in Lyon, France, in order to combat the deadly cattle plague of rinderpest that was wreaking havoc across the globe. 250 years later, the world is a very different place; rinderpest has been eradicated and 2011 is being celebrated internationally as ‘World Veterinary Year’. This September 22nd a smaller-scale but nonetheless significant event in the history of Irish veterinary medicine took place; the inaugural ceremony of our very own School Of Veterinary Medicine in UCD. Guest speaker at the event was the inspirational Professor Peter Doherty, a veterinarian who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1996. Professor Doherty kindly spared some time to talk to the University Observer about his life as a scientist and the challenges faced by mankind in the twenty-first century.
Having a chat with a Nobel Laureate is both amazing and daunting in equal parts (what does an undergrad say to a globally-renowned academic?), but the elderly gentleman with the broad Aussie accent and great sense of humour was nothing like the scientist I had imagined. Peter Doherty was born in 1940 in the sub-tropical city of Brisbane, Australia. He was brought up as part of a large extended family very much influenced by the traditional values of his English and Irish heritage. It was his family’s influence that opened Peter’s eyes to the possibilties offered by a life dedicated to science. According to Professor Doherty: “I got interested in research from a cousin of mine who was a medical scientist who was working on virus infections, but I didn’t want to be a medic. I didn’t want to be around sick people – I thought that would be boring” But why did he choose to enter the world of scientific research via the seemingly unorthodox route of veterinary medicine? “That was kind of the culture at that time in Australia,” Professor Doherty explains. “We had these enormous agricultural industries and we were very dependent on agriculture at that stage – it was always said that Australia rode on the sheep’s back. About half the people who went to the vet schools at that time went on some sort of scholarship from the various state departments to become government vets – they’d be involved in regulatory work, disease investigation, animal production studies, lab studies and so forth.”
Even though Professor Doherty entered his university studies hoping to pursue a career in research, he never imagined where this would eventually take him. “I went into the veterinary thing thinking I wanted to work on diseases of food production animals, I wanted to improve the food situation – I was young, and altruistic and I’d been quite religious for a time (I’m not at all now but I was at that stage) and I wanted to do good.” Any aspiring Nobel prize winners reading this can take comfort in the fact that Professor Doherty wasn’t always a model student; “I did well in the first three years, which [were] very scientific, but the clinical part wasn’t very well taught at all. I was also going though a few things personally; my dad died very young and very suddenly. I think I ended up drinking a fair amount of beer and playing a lot of cards. I wasn’t a grade-A student, and I didn’t graduate with honours.” The terms of his scholarship dictated that the newly-graduated Professor Doherty had to spend several years working for Queenslands Department of Agriculture and Stock, but he soon became disenchanted with life as a government veterinarian. “I said I wanted to go into the lab so the state department who controlled me sent me into the field.” Doherty laughs. “Then I diagnosed trichomoniasis [a reproductive parasite of cattle] in an area where they thought they’d eliminated it.” This move probably didn’t make him too popular with his employers, but it didn’t stop him from receiving a Masters degree for a department project he undertook on Leptospira bacteria. After this he decided to pursue a career in further basic science. “They sent me off to be a diagnostic virologist but that didn’t really interest me, so I took myself off to Edinburgh. I applied for a job in Nature and went to the Moredun Research Institute. I did my PhD part-time while working as a senior scientific officer, then a senior veterinary research officer.” What Professor Doherty refers to as “basic science” is really anything but. Also known as ‘fundamental’, or ‘pure’ science, basic science describes the most basic objects; forces, the relations between them and laws governing them. After completing his PhD, Professor Doherty returned to Australia to pursue this abiding interest. Here, working in the John Curtain School of Medical Research (JCSMR) in Canberra, he made the scientific breakthrough for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He worked with Swiss scientist Rolf Zinkernagel on T-cell immunology, and together the two men revealed the purpose of the enigmatic ‘MHC complex’, a molecule found on the surface of cells which was known to be involved in transplant rejection. However, Doherty and Zinkernagal discovered its main function; when viruses invade our bodies, they enter our cells where they are relatively safe from our immune systems. But luckily, our bodies have evolved clever ways to deal with this. ‘Killer T-lymphocytes’ recognise and destroy the virus-infected cells, leaving our healthy cells unscathed. How do they tell the diseased and healthy cells apart? The virally-infected cells display particles of virus on their surfaces, modified and conjoined with the MHC complex, thereby signalling infection to T-cells. In addition, everyone’s MHC complex is specific to them – hence our bodies can tell ‘self’ from ‘non-self’. This concept, familiar to any biology undergraduate, has played a huge role in our understanding of immunity, viral disease, and the development of vaccines.
The Nobel Prize is awarded retrospectively – Doherty and Zinkernagel received it in 1996, over thirty years after they completed their study. At the time, did Doherty realise the future impact his work may have? “We knew it was big – it was really spectacular. We got some spectacular results out very quickly. In 1973 no one had heard our names. In 1974 we were on the world scene.” This breakthrough put an end to Professor Doherty’s vague plans of someday returning to veterinary research. He became an associate professor at the University of Penyslvania and has been involved in human medical research ever since.
Professor Doherty is approaching his fiftieth anniversary as a medical scientist. “It just shows I’ve got no imagination – I never worked out how to do anything else!” he laughs. After spending so many years at the forefront of human health research, what does he feel is the biggest challenge faced by mankind in the twenty-first century? “From our point of view as veterinarians, feeding the world – it’s a massive problem. You can’t just get out of animal agriculture – a lot of people say we should stop eating animals and only eat vegetables […] But that’s not how a lot of people in the world are going to live, especially in the developing world.” Disease has had a huge impact on agriculture lately – another problem for farmers and consumers alike. Doherty explains “the avian influenza virus, H5N1, has killed something like a billion chickens, often in very poor communities where whether your chickens are alive could well determine whether or not your kid goes to school.” And a food shortage in the face of a growing population isn’t the only problem we face. Soil quality is another issue; “A lot of African soils are nitrogen deficient – globally we’re running out of phosphate” warns Professor Doherty. “I think genetic engineering is going to have to play a big part – we need to engineer plants that can fix their own nitrogen.” He also feels that “obviously energy is of enormous importance, anything to do with energy – transforming us from this fossil fuel burning era to a much cleaner and greener type era.” It’s not often you hear someone simultaneously advocating both genetically-engineered crops and green energy, but Professor Doherty is no doubt right in saying that “we should be approaching the planet in terms of sustainable systems, as far as possible and science has to be absolutely central to that.”
Peter Doherty has made a great contribution to the realm of science, but he’s not quite finished yet. He is still invoved in research at the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where he is working on the influenza virus. Swine flu and bird flu might seem like old news but sadly they’re by no means gone for good; Professor Doherty recently attended a conference where he learnt that “bird flu can jump [from birds to humans] after only five mutations – five mutations is not that much for a flu virus.” It’s not all doom and gloom though; when he’s not overseeing influenza research, Professor Doherty enjoys Memphis’ country music scene and even has time to write books for non-Nobel prizewinners like you and me to read. Two are currently in the works; one on pandemics, and another, tentatively titled Sentinel Chickens. Doherty explains that the latter is “about birds and the environment and poisoning and how birds work”, pausing to briefly quiz this humble journalist on the anatomy of the bird lung (needless to say, he knows more about it then I do). If these sound too intense then look out for The Beginner’s Guide To Winning the Nobel Prize, his own account of becoming a Nobel Laureate.
Rinderpest may be gone, but new challenges have emerged not only for vets, but for all scientists and indeed the human race. We need scientists like Peter Doherty now more than ever – scientists who don’t just work in the lab and publish papers, but who lead us and inspire us in an ever-changing world.