QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has a long and prestigious history spanning 75 years.
QIMR Berghofer, established in 1945 as the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR), was the brainchild of Dr Edward Derrick, an early Director of the Queensland State Health Department Laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology.
Derrick’s work on Q fever, scrub typhus and leptospirosis made him aware of the need for an institute devoted to full-time research into infectious diseases of northern Australia. His pioneering research from 1935 onwards into Q fever led to the discovery of the causative rickettsia, Coxiella burnetii.
It was largely through Derrick’s persistence that the Queensland Institute of Medical Research Act 1945 was passed by the Queensland Parliament. The Institute began its operations with a staff of only seven and occupied temporary buildings (previously the US Armed Forces huts) in Victoria Park, opposite what was then the Brisbane General Hospital.
The first Director of QIMR was Dr Ian Mackerras, an entomologist, who, during World War II, was responsible (with others) for much of the malaria control work of the Australian Army. The complementary aims, interests and expertise of Mackerras and Derrick (who succeeded Mackerras as Director in 1961) were to shape the research direction and impact of QIMR for the next 30 years.
In July 1951, the Institute established a field station at the Innisfail hospital in north Queensland to learn more about the tropical diseases occurring in the local area. Of most interest were leptospirosis (Weil’s disease or the ‘cane cutters’ curse’), scrub typhus and dengue fever.
Medical researcher Dr Ralph Doherty joined the Institute after completing his medical studies and internship in the early 1950s. He moved to Innisfail in 1953.
An outbreak of dengue fever in north Queensland in 1954 heightened the need for research into arboviral diseases, and within five years of the Innisfail field station opening, enough had been learnt to improve diagnosis and treatment.
A better understanding of the role of animals as carriers of bacteria and viruses led to an increased focus on these agents in the transmission of diseases such as dengue fever. During this period, one of the Institute’s young scientists, Dr John Pope, discovered murine leukaemia virus in a house mouse. For this work he was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship to study in the United States. Dr Pope later became Deputy Director of QIMR.
Throughout this decade QIMR continued to expand, and its high quality research into infectious diseases went from strength to strength. This time also represented a turning point for the Institute, as its researchers began to move into other areas such as environmental causes of asthma and longitudinal studies on birth, growth and death trends in the north Queensland Aboriginal population. These latter studies began the long history of the Institute in world class epidemiology research.
The discovery of Ross River virus in 1963 was made by a team led by Professor Ralph Doherty. The virus was named after the site from which the mosquitoes were originally collected. Further research into Ross River virus confirmed it to be the main cause of epidemic polyarthritis – painfully swollen joints and muscles, extreme tiredness, fever and a raised red rash.
QIMR established an oncology section to investigate cancer-causing viruses. Cancer cells were taken from Burkitt’s lymphoma patients in Papua New Guinea, which led to the discovery that the Epstein-Barr virus (which causes glandular fever) can cause lymphoma and some forms of leukaemia. In 1968, this same virus was found to immortalise white blood cells, leading to research of these immune cells and their DNA.
Ian and Josephine Mackerras retired in 1961 and Dr Edward Derrick became Director of the Institute until his own retirement in 1966, when Professor Ralph Doherty was appointed in his place.
In 1970, ground-breaking work into melanoma began at the Institute. This would lead to many important discoveries, such as the understanding of genetic influence in melanoma development.
The Institute formally established an Aboriginal health research unit in 1971 and an anthropologist joined the team of biomedical scientists. Professor Ralph Doherty believed understanding was as important to success as biomedical investigations.
After more than 30 years operating in Hut 8 in Victoria Park, QIMR relocated to new laboratories in the grounds of the Royal Brisbane Hospital in 1977, heralding a new era and the demolition of Hut 8.
A year after relocating, the Institute also had a new Director, Professor Chev Kidson. His vision was for QIMR’s research to contribute to issues of global disease.
When QIMR began work in its new residence, research projects were focused in the areas of entomology, immunology, arboviruses, acarology, rickettsioses, oncology and parasitology. Almost a decade later, and influenced by rapid advances in technology, four distinct programs had emerged: Cancer and Cell Biology; Epidemiology and Public Health; Molecular Biology and Parasitology; and Virology and Immunology.
In 1981, a special five-year malaria vaccine project funded by NHMRC proved a major factor in the internationalisation of QIMR, placing it at the global forefront in the use of monoclonal antibody technology in parasitology.
A Joint Experimental Oncology Program dedicated to investigating the molecular and cellular biology of human cancer began and in 1987 work commenced on new treatments for the organism Giardia.
In 1988, Queensland Parliament amended the QIMR Act to proclaim the Institute a statutory authority. The Queensland Government allocated AUD$30 million in the state budget to rehouse QIMR into a new building designed to maximise opportunities for interaction between the research and medical communities. Construction of an 11-storey facility began in 1989.
Staff numbers soared from 60 to 150 scientists and support staff during this period.
Professor Lawrie Powell became the fifth Director in 1990, leading the Institute into a new era of collaborative and translational research.
QIMR’s new building was officially opened in 1991 and named The Bancroft Centre as a memorial to the pioneering medical research family with whose history QIMR is inextricably linked. The proximity of The Bancroft Centre to the Royal Brisbane Hospital promoted the interactions between researchers and clinicians necessary for the establishment of clinical trials.
During this decade, cancer research accelerated and included world-first human trials to test a new genetic immunotherapy treatment against virus-associated cancer. Scientists also began to develop new methods to recognise and control organ transplant rejection without using immune-suppressing drugs.
In 1997, an anonymous donation of AUD$20 million was received, and along with funds from the state and federal governments, this enabled the construction of a comprehensive cancer research centre. The building was named the Clive Berghofer Cancer Research Centre to honour another prominent donor to QIMR, Toowoomba businessman Clive Berghofer AM, OAM. It was later revealed that the anonymous donation came from legendary Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney, via The Atlantic Philanthropies foundation.
Under the leadership of its next Director, Professor Michael Good, QIMR was restructured into four divisions: Infectious Diseases and Immunology; Cancer and Cell Biology; Population Studies and Human Genetics; and Therapeutic Development and Clinical Research. A new Indigenous Health Research Program was also initiated.
Significant work was undertaken in liver disease and leukaemia during this time. Donor antigen presenting cells were found to cause graft-versus-host disease in bone marrow transplant patients, and progress was made in understanding the pathogenesis of haemochromatosis and its associated cirrhosis.
QIMR geneticists achieved success in mapping the major chromosomes of Giardia duodenali and the genome of the flatworm, Schistosoma japonicum.
In 2002, Q-Pharm Pty Ltd, a joint venture between QIMR, The University of Queensland, and Professors Hooper and Dickenson, became operational as a Phase 1 clinical trials facility to test potential new therapeutic products on humans. In 2004, QIMR created Q-Gen Pty Ltd as its commercial arm for the
contract manufacture of cell-based therapies.
In 2010, QIMR’s research broadened to include a dedicated Mental Health Program. Led by Professor Michael Breakspear, the program undertakes research that aims to reduce the burden of mental illness on society and improve the quality of life for those with a mental illness.
Work on QIMR’s third building began in February 2010, located on the site of the former Queensland Radium Institute. The capital expansion was made possible by another generous gift from The Atlantic Philanthropies foundation, which gifted AUD$27.5 million towards the 13-storey building. The state and federal governments both made contributions to ensure the building’s completion.
In January 2011, internationally renowned molecular biologist Professor Frank Gannon was appointed as the seventh Director and CEO of the Institute. Under Professor Gannon’s leadership the Institute consolidated its activities into four research programs:
In 2013, QIMR received a generous donation of AUD$50.1 million from Toowoomba philanthropist Clive Berghofer AM, OAM. In recognition of his long history of significant support, QIMR was renamed QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.
The Institute’s status as a leading translational facility was reinforced in 2015 with Q-Gen becoming the first Australian manufacturing facility to receive Therapeutic Goods Administration approval to manufacture cellular therapies for human use.