“There isn’t a single advance in vaccine, immunotherapy or autoimmunity research that doesn’t incorporate (his) thinking.”
In 1958, while working at the Chester Beatty Research Institute in London, Professor Miller’s work on leukaemia led him to discover that the thymus was crucial to the development of the immune system.
He is now credited as the last person to have identified the function of a major organ.
In 1966, Professor Miller returned to Australia, having been invited by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s director, Sir Gustav Nossal, to be head of the institute’s Experimental Pathology Unit.
Building on his earlier discovery, Professor Miller, with Dr Graham Mitchell, set out to prove that the thymus produces immune cells (T cells) that are essential for the immune response.
“What we discovered was that there are in fact two types of white blood cells: T cells, which are produced in the thymus, and B cells which are produced in the bone marrow. Furthermore, we discovered that B cells are the cells that produce antibodies, and that T cells actually interact with the B cells to help them produce antibodies,” Professor Miller said.
Professor Miller and his colleagues, through their work, ushered in a new field of biomedical research: T cell biology. There are now at least six different types of T cells known to perform a variety of functions in the immune system and response.
“We now understand a lot of things that we didn’t before,” Professor Miller said.
“For example, we know how to boost the response to a vaccine because we understand the function of T cells. Understanding of the immune response helps us understand the timeline of an infection and how the immune response develops to respond to this attack. Then you have autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes or multiple sclerosis, where the T cells, rather than fighting off foreign infections, turn against your own body and cause disease. And of course there is cancer. Can some cancers be cured if we can activate T cells against the cancer cells themselves? This is currently happening in clinical trials around the world. So the whole of my work has tremendous implications in every field of medicine.”
Although Professor Miller retired in 1996 he continues to be actively involved in immunology research at the institute.
For his discoveries in the UK and Australia, Professor Miller has been awarded the highest international academic honours, including the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London, and the Prime Minister’s Science Prize (2003).
He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1970), a Fellow of The Royal Society (1970), a Foreign Associate of the US Academy of Sciences (1982) and a Companion of the Order of Australia (2003).
In 2005 Professor Miller was interviewed for the WEHI Revisited series (produced by Louise Darmody, Sound Memories), in which several Institute luminaries spoke about what drove them to pursue a career in medical research, and shared memories of life at the Institute.
The interviews can be accessed at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, and the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.