Professor Doug Hilton AO served as director of WEHI between 2009 and 2023.
Prof Hilton ushered in a new era for the institute that embraced not only fundamental research and discovery but also accelerated effort around translation and commercialisation, strengthening links with other health, research, philanthropic and educational organisations.
He is celebrated as a progressive leader who elevated a commitment to gender equality and diversity to create an inclusive workplace where people thrive professionally and personally.
During his term as director Prof Hilton oversaw the expansion of WEHI’s strategic research focus, by considering the institute’s strengths and long-term aspirations, and the opportunities of rapidly advancing technologies to help solve previously intractable research problems. Five core themes were identified that have shaped WEHI’s research priorities:
Building on WEHI’s strong history in cancer, infection, immunity and immunology, the expanded research focus responded to the increasing burden of chronic and degenerative disease in Australia. The new Healthy Development and Ageing theme capitalised on existing WEHI expertise in understanding the molecular basis of development, health and disease, a track record of developing new medicines, and translational links to hospitals and health care providers. The theme’s focus included establishing the Ubiquitin Signaling division, to explore the role of protein modifications in conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
The cross-cutting New Medicines and Advanced Technologies theme, and the Computational Biology theme were established to further strengthen technology-driven research and better enable multidisciplinary collaboration to tackle major health challenges.
Under Prof Hilton’s leadership the institute grew from more than 750 researchers, students and professional services staff in 2009 to more than 1300 by the end of 2022.
Prof Hilton placed a strong emphasis on collaboration, harnessing the collective power of multidisciplinary teams to tackle complex problems. He championed the establishment of several landmark research centres including The Brain Cancer Centre, which emerged from a shared vision between Prof Hilton and Carrie Bickmore OAM, Founder and Chair of Carrie’s Beanies 4 Brain Cancer Foundation – to bring together the brightest minds in medical research to end brain cancer as a terminal illness.
During Prof Hilton’s tenure, WEHI completed a substantial building and renovation project that more than doubled the available space for research, including the investment in new technologies. A strategic investment in advanced microscopy platforms and expert staff enabled WEHI’s Centre for Dynamic Imaging to establish itself as a world-class facility for generating detailed and real-time views of biological systems and advancing our understanding of how diseases develop, spread and respond to treatment.
The National Drug Discovery Centre, also established under Prof Hilton’s leadership, was designed to reduce the barriers researchers faced in translating their fundamental discoveries into new medicines and other biological agents. The centre gave researchers at WEHI and across Australia access to ultra-high throughput screening technologies for the discovery of new small molecules as chemical tools, first-in-class medicines, and biological therapeutics.
The Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre, established in 2019, was another exciting collaborative opportunity for improving health. This centre was a partnership between the Royal Melbourne Hospital and WEHI, working closely together to use advanced technologies to design and develop the first blood test for dementia.
WEHI also accelerated its engagement with commercial partners, and expanded entrepreneurism as an important capability of its workforce. A key event during the Hilton era was the approval of venetoclax as a new treatment for certain blood cancers. This drug was developed by Genentech (a member of the Roche Group) and AbbVie as part of a collaboration with WEHI. In 2017, WEHI partially sold its royalty rights in venetoclax, a US$325 million deal that was a landmark in Australian medical research.
Prof Hilton also strengthened WEHI’s connections with the community and championed the inclusion of consumers – people impacted by disease – in WEHI’s research.
A strong advocate for women in science, Prof Hilton was actively involved in advancing gender equality at WEHI and in the sector more broadly as a member of the Champions of Change Coalition, a board member of Australians Investing in Women and as part of the Steering Committee of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE).
Within the institute, Prof Hilton played a key role in establishing the Gender Equity Committee with a mandate to maximise the opportunities for women in science. Among the major initiatives delivered under his tenure was the Professor Lynn Corcoran Early Learning Centre at Parkville – the first on-site childcare centre at an Australian independent medical research institute, enabling researchers an easier pathway to returning to work after parental leave. Combined with his strategic recruitment of young talented lab heads from across the globe, including qualified WEHI postdoctoral fellows poised to start their independent laboratories, the gender equity initiatives have contributed to increasing the proportion of female lab heads from 24% in 2009 to 42% at the start of 2023.
During this period WEHI was awarded a prestigious Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of its commitments to addressing gender inequality, supporting diversity and creating an inclusive workplace culture.
Prof Hilton’s leadership oversaw the development of a broader Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, aimed at ensuring the institute builds capacity and capability to enable people from diverse backgrounds to reach their potential and harness the benefits of this diversity through inclusion.
Prof Hilton also recognised the role the institute must play in advocacy across the sector and community more broadly, particularly through championing the rights of the LBGTQIA+ community. This included a statement in support of marriage equality, support for trans and gender diverse people and acting as the auspice for the community-based organisation Queers in Science.
Recognising WEHI’s unique position to contribute to improved health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Prof Hilton initiated WEHI’s formal reconciliation journey with the establishment of the institute’s Reconciliation Committee and first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in 2013. Since then, WEHI has gone on to develop two further RAPs. WEHI also advocated for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, making a submission to the Joint Select Committee Inquiry into Constitutional Recognition and by publicly supporting the Voice to Parliament.
A passionate champion for science and medical research, Prof Hilton was instrumental in leading the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign, which acted as the catalyst for the establishment of the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).
Prof Hilton played an active leadership role in advocating for the medical research sector, including as President of the Australian Association of Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) that played a major role in formulating the AAMRI submission to the McKeon review, and as a member of the Australian Medical Research Advisory Board of the MRFF, Indigenous Health Research Fund (IHRF) Expert Advisory Council, mRNA Victoria Advisory Group, and the NHMRC Research Committee.
A notable and widely celebrated blood cell researcher, Prof Hilton purified and characterised the cytokine leukemia inhibitory factor and discovered a new family of proteins regulating signalling in the blood. He led a remarkable laboratory team that collaborated to unravel many of the secrets of how the various types of blood cells are produced and how they communicate. He has co-authored more than 200 scientific papers, patented key discoveries and led many collaborations with industry to translate discoveries into better treatments for diseases like asthma.
Beyond medical research, Prof Hilton has also pursued a passion for entomology and has published peer-reviewed taxonomic papers on Australian moths and discovered new species.
For his achievements as a researcher, communicator and advocate for science, Prof Hilton has received countless awards including:
Professor Doug Hilton AO departed WEHI to commence as Chief Executive Officer of CSIRO in September 2023.