Over the past 100 years, our discoveries have advanced scientific understanding and resulted in new and more effective treatments for patients.

From our early beginnings researchers at WEHI have been making significant discoveries in immunity, cancer and infectious diseases.

“Scientific discoveries rarely occur through Eureka moments in one individual. More commonly, discoveries and the resulting improvements in human health are the result of creative, insightful, hard-working teams who devote decades to their research.”
– Professor Don Metcalf

Discoveries in immune disorders

Immune cell function

  • The ‘clonal selection theory’ developed by Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet proved that each antibody-producing cell is programmed to recognise just one infectious agent. When this match occurs, the cell will clone itself to fight the infection. The theory revolutionised our understanding of immunity.
  • Discovering that cells from the thymus (T cells) help cells from the bone marrow (B cells) to generate antibodies. This demonstrated that immune cell collaboration and communication is central to immunity.
  • Demonstration that dendritic cells can develop from diverse precursors.
  • Identifying that proteins called histamines trigger severe allergic (anaphylactic) reactions.

Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases

  • Proving the immune system learns to recognise and tolerate its own cells and tissues, so it can respond to foreign agents. This discovery of acquired immunological tolerance earned Burnet and Sir Peter Medawar the 1960 Nobel Prize.
  • Proposing the radical theory that the immune system can go awry and attack the body’s own tissue, causing autoimmune diseases. Autoimmunity is now universally accepted as the cause of diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
  • Identifying that the blood hormones G-CSF and GM-CSF promote inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis. Antibodies that block this action are in development.

Improving treatment for immune disorders

  • Initiating medical treatment of autoimmunity with drugs that suppress the immune system, which is still the gold standard today.
  • Development and clinical application of metabolic and immunological testing to identify people, particularly children, at risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
  • Identifying the three peptides in gluten that are toxic for people with coeliac disease, which provides targets for a potential vaccine.
  • Identifying a new and less invasive diagnostic test for coeliac disease, which is now in trials.

Discoveries in cancer

  • Identifying CSFs (colony stimulating factors), the white blood cell signaling hormones that boost infection-fighting white blood cells in the body. The discovery has already helped more than 20 million cancer patients worldwide to recover from chemotherapy and revolutionised blood stem cell transplantation.
  • Discovering that the protein BCL-2 prevents cells from dying when they should, thereby contributing to cancer development and thwarting cancer treatment. This finding has revolutionised understanding of cancers and autoimmune disorders. It has also led to the development of a new class of anti-cancer agents currently in clinical trials.
  • Identifying breast stem cells and demonstrating that a single breast cell can generate a fully functional breast. This has already led to discovery of the cell of origin of BRCA1-related hereditary breast cancers, and explained the link between female hormones and increased risk of breast cancer. We are now trialling a new preventive drug to switch-off cancer causing cells.

Discoveries in infectious diseases

Viral infections

  • Identifying that the poliomyelitis virus, which causes polio, enters the body via the mouth and infects the intestinal lining. This discovery led to improved public health strategies in the 1960s.
  • Discovering influenza is an RNA virus and can exchange genetic material to create new virus strains. This knowledge has helped to explain how pandemic flu viruses emerge.
  • Identifying that the viruses that attack bacterium (bacteriophages) hide by integrating and reproducing in the bacteria’s DNA. This discovery has subsequently become a major tool for genetic research.

Bacterial infections

  • Discovering the bacteria that cause Q fever, Coxiella burnetii, and psittacosis, Chlamydophila psittaci

Parasitic infections

  • Discovering how T cells recognise parasite proteins, leading to identification of the first parasite-specific antibodies for detecting and diagnosing parasitic infections.
  • Explaining how the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum evades detection by the immune system by varying the genetic code of proteins on the surface of malaria-infected cells.
  • Discovering how Plasmodium falciparum parasites become resistant to certain antimalarial drugs. This has enabled monitoring of the spread of drug-resistant malaria and development of new anti-malarial treatments.


  • Developing the current procedure for growing influenza virus in sufficient quantities to produce the flu vaccine.
  • Pioneering a new approach to improve vaccine efficacy, by targeting antigens directly to dendritic cells. This is now a major field of research for making better vaccines for infectious diseases and cancers.
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Illuminate Autumn 2024
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