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Work with remote people earns Curtin medical researcher ANZAAS Medal

Media release

Leading global expert on infectious diseases Curtin University Emeritus Professor Michael Alpers has been named the 2020 recipient of The Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) Medal for his exceptional contribution to science.

Curtin University Faculty of Health Sciences Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Archie Clements, Emeritus Professor Michael Alpers and ANZAAS WA Chair John Curtin Distinguished Professor David Treagust.

Professor Alpers’ pioneering research into the rare brain disease kuru, which he undertook while living with an isolated village community in remote Papua New Guinea, paved the way for a new field of human medicine and included the important discovery of infectious proteins now known as prions.

Professor Alpers, who has remained heavily involved with the Papua New Guinean Fore people and kuru research since his fieldwork there in the 1960s, was presented the ANZAAS Medal yesterday at Curtin’s Perth campus.

Curtin University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research Professor Chris Moran congratulated Professor Alpers, saying it was important recognition for both his sustained medical research and commitment to combatting kuru disease over many decades.

“Professor Alpers is an internationally respected medical researcher and tropical disease expert whom Curtin University is incredibly proud to have among its academic ranks,” Professor Moran said.

“He remained dedicated to researching kuru from soon after the disease was discovered by medical science until the epidemic ended some 50 years later, during which period he was also Director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research (1977 to 2000) where he worked on the tropical diseases of national importance and in developing and testing malaria and pneumonia vaccines.

“The films he made to document his fieldwork in remote Papua New Guinea were included in the Melanesian Film Archive, which was assembled at the National Institutes of Health in the US before being transferred to Curtin University in 2005 where they remain in the care of Professor Alpers.”

Professor Alpers said he was honoured to receive the ANZAAS Medal, which was the culmination of a career that he began as a medical student in Adelaide in the 1950s when he first read about the obscure kuru disease in a news article.

“It was described by some observers as the ‘laughing death’ disease, producing face and body contortions, tremors and an uncontrollable laugh, which was followed by the progressive loss of all motor functions and eventually death,” Professor Alpers said.

“In 1961, I relocated to the remote eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea to study the effects of the disease firsthand, building strong links with the Fore people and going on to discover that kuru was transmitted through diseased brain tissue.

“For spiritual and cultural reasons, it had been the usual mortuary practice among the Fore community to consume the bodies of loved ones upon their death – this was how kuru had spread.”

The presentation of the ANZAAS Medal to Professor Alpers coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first and only ANZAAS Congress held in Papua New Guinea, in August 1970.