Douglas Hilton

2012 LEMBERG MEDAL: DOUGLAS HILTON

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Professor Doug Hilton PhD FAA FTSE is a molecular biologist whose research has focused on the regulation of blood formation, cytokines and signal transduction.

Doug was educated in Melbourne, receiving a Bachelor of Science from Monash University. After spending summer holidays in the laboratory of Professor Ian Young at the John Curtain School of Medical Research, he undertook Honours and PhD research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, working with Professors Don Metcalf and Nic Nicola to clone the cytokine, leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF), which is now widely used in the culture of mouse embryonic stem cells.

During his postdoctoral training with Professor Harvey Lodish at the Whitehead Institute, MIT, USA, Doug devised a new approach to find unidentified receptors for cytokines. Upon his return to WEHI in 1993, he successfully used this approach to clone receptors for interleukin (IL)-11, IL-13 and a novel cytokine called NR6.

In the early 1990s, Doug hypothesised that intracellular inhibitors of cytokine signalling must exist to limit the magnitude and duration of a cell’s response. With Dr Robyn Starr and colleagues, he discovered a novel family of genes termed ‘suppressors of cytokine signalling’ (SOCS), which form part of a classic negative feedback loop to regulate cytokine action.

Over the last decade, the Hilton lab has embarked on a large-scale forward genetic screen in mice for mutations that affect general haemopoiesis and platelet formation. This program aims to identify genes that lead to amelioration of disease when mutated, providing in vivo validated targets for therapeutic discovery. It has already revealed the involvement of many unsuspected molecules in haemopoiesis regulation, and led to the creation of an extensive atlas of gene expression in nine lineages of mouse haemopoietic cells.

Since becoming Director of WEHI in 2009, Doug has overseen the later stages of the institute’s major building and expansion project, and worked to increase the institute’s involvement in translational research and indigenous health. He has also initiated family-friendly support measures to address the difficulties experienced by many scientists, especially women, in progressing to more senior roles.

Doug is a passionate advocate of health and medical research, and in 2011, initiated and coordinated the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign, which saw thousands of Australians write and rally against rumoured NHMRC budget cuts.