The quiet evangelist

PROFESSOR Suzanne Cory hadn’t thought she would be a scientist. As a girl she dreamt of becoming a writer, until a hard-headed self-assessment put her right: “I decided I was too ordinary, too middle-class, and I would probably never have the kind of experiences that good literature is made from. And I wasn’t sure that I had the nerve to be exposed to those events anyway.”

Instead, she took that objectivity and turned it to pursuing the cause of cancer. Thirty years on, she has won international acclaim for her scientific discoveries and the directorship of the nation’s biggest and most prestigious medical research institute. She is also in the vanguard of those warning Australia that it must invest more in medical science now or find itself out of the race early next century.

Cory, the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, has called for the Federal Government to accept the recommendations of the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research, to be considered by Parliament in the current sitting. The review, chaired by businessman Peter Wills, said federal funding for health and medical research should be doubled and capital gains tax reformed to internationally competitive levels to encourage private investment in science.

Cory is a quietly spoken woman with a gentle manner but an evangelistic zeal. For the first 30 minutes of our interview she talks almost without pause, hammering home the urgency of Australia’s situation and the need to drum up support for Health Minister Michael Wooldridge’s pitch to Cabinet on the issue. Central to her vision is the exploding biotechnology industry and the potential for Melbourne to become a “genome valley” – the biotech equivalent of the IT industry’s “silicon valley”.

Cory argues that Australia will only be able to cope with a projected doubling of health costs by 2015 if it invests in basic research now. She says Australia must explore gene technology and discover medicines and techniques that it can sell internationally if it is to afford future products such as pharmaceuticals that have been developed overseas.

Doubling research funding would create between 10,000 and 15,000 jobs and lure back talented Australians working overseas. Some of the profits from the emerging biotechnology industry could then be ploughed back into research and the wider community.

She believes Australia is well-placed to contribute to what has been called the biologists’ search for the Holy Grail – the Human Genome project – which involves scientists all over the world working to map the 100,000 human genes, as well as the genomes of other key organisms. Once a gene’s role in a disease is understood, scientists should be able to comprehend the molecular basis for the disease – the chemical blueprints – then design medicines accordingly.

The project’s benefits are expected to include improved crops and livestock, more precise diagnostic markers of disease and “smarter” and “more natural” medicines that are, she says, “based on an intelligent appreciation of the pathways inside cells, so you can design a drug that is much more selective for the pathway that’s gone awry in, say, neuro-degenerative disease or cancer.”

“Long-term, we’ll be able to tailor medicine to the individual. We will know a person’s DNA profile. For example, certain families inherit a predisposition to diabetes. It’s a very complex disease due to (the) inheritance of certain versions of probably five or six genes.

“We don’t know what those genes are at the moment, or how they interact, but in the future we probably will. We’ll be able to detect which child in a family has inherited that constellation of genes and so from very early on, the family will know that this child needs certain lifestyle changes in order to prevent the onset of diabetes. That may be (repeated) across a range of diseases.”

Cory has almost always worked with minute elements that can have significant effects on human health. The motto of her discipline, molecular biology, could be, “The devil is in the detail.” Cancer starts with a single cell that goes wrong and much of Cory’s work, with her husband and scientific partner Professor Jerry Adams, has been focused on discovering the cancer devil’s whereabouts at the level of the gene.

Last year Cory shared the Australia Prize for molecular genetics for the discovery that oncogenes – cancer-causing genes – could be activated by genetic accidents in the body’s production of antibodies.

Breakthroughs like that help make a lifetime of painstaking detective work worthwhile. Cory says: “When you have come to an understanding of something important and you are the only one in the world who knows it, for just a few minutes – because of course, you have to publish it – just that moment is wonderfully exciting.

“It’s punctuated by lots of things that don’t work, long hard days at the lab where things go wrong … But understanding how life works is such an exciting voyage of discovery that you can put up with a lot of shipwrecks along the way.”

Cory grew up the eldest of three in a Kew family. Her father was an accountant and her siblings went into music and business; she says she was lured into science “by good teachers, of course … One was a year 9 teacher at Camberwell Girls Secondary School. She just had such an enthusiasm for science that it spilled over and infected you.”
Cory became firmly hooked at university when she learnt about DNA and chromosomes and genes: “Every lecture we heard, this story was unfolding.” She resists the notion that women scientists were unusual back then, pointing out that they’ve always been well represented in the biological sciences.

But when she was working casually at the CSIRO she saw a woman scientist forced to resign because she had married. Cory admits she was lucky to win her scholarship to study at Cambridge: “When I was a student there were very few scholarships at all to go overseas, but almost all of them stipulated men only. And the one I got – I think they forgot to say men only!”

It was at Cambridge that she met her American-born husband. They returned to Australia, had two daughters and worked together until Cory was in effect made his boss when she became director in 1996.

She misses the hands-on science, and the day-to-day working partnership: “It was difficult, in the sense that we’ve always worked as a total pair before … But I think it’s worked out surprisingly well … You can’t have two people being a director.

“I think a lesser man might have had more trouble than Jerry, but he’s an incredible person.”

CORY is surrounded by colleagues who not only admire her, but like her. Her formidable predecessor at the institute, Sir Gustav Nossal, launches into a 10-minute dissertation on her strengths: as a scientist of world renown, as a mentor of the best and brightest students, as a visionary leader who picked the importance of the genome project as the coming wave of world biotechnology. And as a person who would talk as nicely to the tea-lady as she would to the Health Minister.

Says Professor Bob Williamson, director of the Murdoch Institute: “She’s universally respected within the science and medical community for being scrupulously open and honest … She’s not Machiavellian.” He adds drily: “I think it’s possible to overcome those disadvantages if you’re good enough, and Suzanne is good enough.”

At 57, Cory’s professional preoccupations now revolve around ensuring that others get the kind of opportunities that have meant so much to her. She emphasises the need for a strong education system: “I am very worried about the cutbacks to the universities because if the universities aren’t strong, then we’re not going to produce good researchers. I know that at some universities, science enrolments are way down (since the introduction of tertiary fees). Investment in education … is really absolutely fundamental.”

Australia is just holding its own in the brain-drain stakes, she says, with as many foreign scientists arriving as local ones are leaving.

But the situation could become critical if funding does not improve. “The US is doubling its (medical research) expenditure, the UK is committing huge amounts of resources; so are Japan and Korea … If they all start rolling before us, we’ll be playing catch-up.”

First published in The Age.