31 March 2022

At the 2021 NHMRC Research Excellence Awards presentation in Canberra on 30 March 2022, NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso AO introduced the newly named NHMRC David Cooper Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies Award, honouring Australian HIV/AIDS clinical researcher and immunologist Professor David Cooper AC. Professor Kelso spoke about the significance of Professor Cooper’s legacy and his humanity in placing patients at the centre of his clinical research.

David Cooper was one of the first responders to the HIV epidemic in Australia in the 1980s. He was on an NHMRC travelling fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston in 1981 where he first witnessed the devastating impact of this mysterious new virus. He returned to Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital in 1983, the year HIV was shown to be the cause of AIDS, and saw the same disease patterns in the local gay community. David was an exceptional person, both an outstanding clinical researcher and a person of deep humanity, and this was apparent in his response to HIV/AIDS. He earned the trust of a community in shock and grief. 

With Professor Cooper, patients from the general practices of Oxford Street took part in the first clinical HIV trials that would radically improve treatments in Australia and internationally. The results, published in The Lancet, led to the first description anywhere in the world of the so-called “seroconversion illness,” which defines initial HIV infection in many people. He also worked with collaborators to establish one of the world’s first prospective studies of HIV in gay men. 

David was a generous collaborator with the vision to bring science, clinical practice and public health together. Together with patients, their families, and advocates, he went on to devise and conduct trials with international colleagues of new antiretroviral drugs, combinations of antiretrovirals, immunotherapies and vaccines, taking a leading role in most of the key trials that ultimately led to the optimal use of life-saving combination treatments that are now widely available to people with HIV around the world. 

He was founding Director of the Kirby Institute from its establishment as an NHMRC Special Unit in 1986 until his early death after a short illness in 2018. He was a past president of the International AIDS Society. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2003 and posthumously a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2018. 

There is much more that could be said but even this short account of David’s research is a compelling reminder of the contribution that patients and researchers working together make to advances in health care. I hope that naming the NHMRC Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies Award in David’s honour will help to ensure he remains the model, for future generations, of the clinician researcher who works in true partnership with patients and affected communities.

The first round of the Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies Scheme was run in 2019. The second round in 2020 was delayed by half a year because of the pandemic, and it is the award for this round that will be presented tonight. From now on, the award will honour Professor David Cooper AC. We are just thrilled that the Cooper Family have allowed us to name the award the NHMRC David Cooper Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies Award. David’s wife, Dorrie Cooper, and their daughters Bec and Ilana are with us tonight to present the award in David’s name. Thank you so much for being here.

Professor Trevor Leong from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre is the first to receive the newly named NHMRC David Cooper Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies Award. You can read more about the recipients of the 2021 NHMRC Research Excellence Awards and their research here.

Left to right: Dorrie Cooper, Ilana Cooper, 2020 NHMRC David Cooper Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies Award recipient Professor Trevor Leong, Bec Cooper and NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso. Photo supplied by: PewPew Photography.