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Rare Royal Society honour for Curtin academic

Media release

C144/08

Curtin University of Technology’s Professor Michael Alpers has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence since 1660 with some of the world’s most eminent scientists making up its Fellowship.

Professor Alpers’ appointment is a rare honour which recognises researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to science. He is currently a John Curtin Distinguished Professor at the University’s Centre for International Health

With this prestigious appointment, Professor Alpers joins only a handful of Australians who have received this award. They include Nobelists Howard Florey and John Eccles, and Australians of the Year Gus Nossal and Frank Fenner, who led the eradication of smallpox. Other noted Fellows include Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren and Charles Darwin.

Professor Jill Downie, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Health Sciences at Curtin, congratulated Professor Alpers on this important achievement.

“This honour recognises Professor Alpers as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century, and Curtin is privileged to have him as part of our Institution,” Professor Downie said.

“We congratulate him on this honour and applaud his many contributions to the advancement of tropical medicine.”

Professor Alpers was a major player in the unravelling of the mystery of prion disease. Prions are proteins whose abnormal forms cause a group of diseases including mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and kuru.

He has worked closely with Carleton Gajdusek on the kuru problem in Papua New Guinea (PNG) from the early 1960s, and they proved that the disease was transmitted by endocannibalism. Gajdusek was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1976 for this work. Professor Alpers later published with a second Nobelist, Stanley Prusiner, who uncovered the role of the abnormal prion protein.

Professor Alpers’ work on kuru in the eastern highlands of PNG began a lifelong association with infectious disease research in that country. He built the PNG Institute of Medical Research in Goroka into a national institution and remained its director for 23 years.

As well as his work on prion diseases, Professor Alpers’ major research interests include malaria, respiratory diseases (pneumonia, asthma), viral diseases of the tropics, and filariasis. He is the author of hundreds of articles, many of which have appeared in leading journals such as Nature and Science.

Since retiring from his role in the PNG Institute of Medical Research in 2000, Professor Alpers has worked as a research professor at Curtin.

Professor Alpers has a strong commitment to community health and is dedicated to the goal of equity in health in an international context. He has long been an advocate for the integrated study of human biology in the broadest sense as a basis for understanding human behaviour and human diseases. He is currently a Member or Fellow of 30 professional societies and associations.

In 2005, Professor Alpers was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his service to medical science in the fields of international tropical medicine and public health, research on the disease kuru and contributions to improving health, and economic development in Papua New Guinea.

Contact: Professor Michael Alpers; 08 9266 4733; m.alpers@curtin.edu.au