Professor Ian Frazer – Scientist
Posted October 13, 2011, by Helen Isbister
Professor Ian Frazer is an immunologist who developed the cervical cancer vaccine known as Gardasil. He emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1980 and was named Australian of the Year in 2006 for his breakthrough research. Gardasil helps to prevent infection with certain types of human papillomavirus responsible for most cervical cancers. Cervical cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women world-wide. Professor Frazer is currently working on developing a skin cancer vaccine.
How did you start out in science and immunology?
I was a naturally curious child, fortunate to have good mentorship at school and inspiring parents. Equally fortunately, I met Professor Gundert at Freiburg University when I was 18 and he inspired me to focus on the immunology of infection.
Where did you study and what degrees did you obtain?
I went to Edinburgh University, with the initial intent of studying Physics, but changed my degree course to Medicine shortly after my arrival. I obtained a science degree in Pathology in 1974 and a medical degree in 1977.
What qualities and qualifications do you need to be a scientist?
An inquiring mind that gets pleasure out of finding answers, and persistence (to a fault) in the face of obstacles.
Formally, a training in research (ideally through doing research!) and possibly experience in health care to better understand the nature of the problems you’re trying to solve.
Where do you work now?
Now, I direct the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.
What are you working on at the moment?
How to prevent squamous (skin) cancers through immunotherapy, focused at papillomaviruses. This work is based on the observation that some skin cancer is initiated by papillomaviruses. These are, however, not the same set of papillomaviruses that are responsible for cervical cancer, nor are they the ones that cause warts – in fact, they cause no visible disease at all.
Where do you draw inspiration?
I’ve always had role models whom I hope to emulate – Sir Gustav Nossal and, most recently, Professor Peter Doherty.
FYI Professor Peter Doherty received the 1996 Nobel Prize (with Rolf Zinkernagel) for his discovery of how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells, and was named 1997 Australian of the Year.
What does a typical day involve for you?
These days, about one third administration for the institute, one third advocacy for science and research in the community and the profession, and one third supervising my research team’s work.
What interests you about the career?
My career is my hobby! It gives me a great chance to interact with people much smarter than I am.
What do you not like about the career?
Administrative work and the associated time pressure constraints.
What has been your career highlight?
Recognising that the immune system could be used to prevent a cancer by preventing the infection that’s responsible for that cancer; and, with colleagues, delivering a technology that confers that protection.
What did it mean for you to become Australian of the Year?
An honour for a week, an opportunity for a year and a job for life.
You are called on to do a lot of media and events. How do you balance this with the science side of your career?
The two are integral to each other – we need to talk about science to convince others to fund us to do it.
What are the trends in science careers at the moment?
A move to teamwork, to clustering (physically and intellectually) and to using new technology (for example, human genome sequencing) to generate new hypotheses about the nature of health and disease.
What are the opportunities?
There are always opportunities to develop ever-improving technologies to see further, better, and in more detail into solutions to problems. The rate of knowledge-gathering is accelerating all the time, and the many identified problems we face – for example, health, the environment and human behaviour – are still in urgent need of solutions.