Fenner, innovators honoured

By Tanya Hollis
Friday, 08 March, 2002


World-renowned microbiologist Prof Frank Fenner was last night (March 7) honoured with a prestigious lifetime contribution award from the Ian Clunies Ross Memorial Foundation.

The award, presented at a formal dinner at Melbourne's Hotel Sofitel, saw Fenner join the ranks of previous winners including Sir Gustav Nossal, Dr Phillip Law and Prof Ralph Slatyer.

Fenner, noted for his constant focus on practical applications, worked with the World Health Organisation in the 1970s on various smallpox eradication programs and is a world expert in the area of poxviruses.

In the 1950s, he played a key role in the control of Australia's rabbit plagues through the introduction of virus-causing disease, myxomatosis, going on to pioneer the field of viral genetics.

Other winners of the Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award included Compumedics founder David Burton, Prof John Irwin of Brisbane's CRC for Tropical Plant Protection, Prof Eric Reynolds from the University of Melbourne's School of Dental Science and Dr Ted Maddess, a senior fellow at ANU's Centre for Visual Sciences.

Contributions to the mining industry were also recognised with awards going to Gekko Systems technical director Sandy Gray and BHP Billiton exploration technologies manager Edwin van Leeuwen, both of whom have done work in gravity systems for mineral separation and mapping.

Burton said that while he appreciated and respected his award, his work with sleep disorders company Compumedics kept him too busy to bask in the glory.

In 1987 the electronics engineer designed a computerised system that could monitor sleep, which two years later was installed at Melbourne's Epworth Hospital to become Australia's first sleep disorders clinic.

Today the company is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, employs 87 people and earns $25 million annually.

A clearly passionate Burton said the field was still young and emerging research into the links between sleep disorders and disease were opening new areas of product development.

He said studies had shown diseases such as congestive heart failure and stroke were now being linked to undiagnosed cases of sleep problems in older people, as was attentive deficit and hyperactivity disorder in children.

"Our focus is now in this area and how we can better identify at-risk populations who have not been diagnosed with sleep disorders," he said.

Also from Melbourne is Prof Reynolds, whose research into the bacteria that cause tooth decay has led to the discovery of milk-based products that can recalcify teeth - a market estimated at $500 million.

After 20 years of basic research, Reynolds joined forces with Bonlac Foods, which produces the protective compound known as Recaldent.

The compound, contained in chewing gum, is now sold through pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to markets in the US, Japan and Europe.

Reynolds is also working with CSL on vaccines that could prevent dental diseases.

A non-invasive method of detecting early-stage glaucoma earned ANU scientist Maddess his award.

Basing his research on the way insects see the world, Maddess developed a novel visual stimulus device that was awarded the 1999 Australian Technology Prize and which is now sold globally through Humphrey-Zeiss.

Maddess said he was now working on similar diagnostic tools for a broader range of diseases including macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and multiple sclerosis.

"I guess it's nice," he said of his Clunies Ross award, "Mainly because there's an element of peer review."

"It shows that some of your colleagues think what you are doing is worthwhile."

Irwin, CEO of the CRC for Tropical Plant Protection, received his award for his work in producing disease-resistant tropical crops, worth millions of dollars to northern farmers.

He has spent 30 years in the field, working to protect the beef industry for disease in pasture crops, contributing to a better understand of the causes of disease and helping to improve strains of Lucerne, stylo, oats and cowpea.

The Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award was first awarded in 1991 to identify role models who have demonstrated outstanding personal commitment over time and who have succeeded in applying science and technology for the benefit of Australians.

Winners receive a 10 ounce silver medal stamped with the head of Sir Ian Clunies Ross on one side and the brolga, his favourite bird, on the reverse.

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