Curiosity may lead to diabetes treatment


Professor Len Harrison

15 October 2009

Can the same curiosity that once led a high school student to become a research scientist also lead to a discovery that helps diabetes sufferers?

A burning desire to understand why things work the way they do drove Professor Len Harrison to lead his team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne to search for ways to prevent and cure Type 1 diabetes.

Here Prof Harrison tells Dr Andi Horvath how curiosity and an inspiring mentor led to his research career.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Every year NHMRC celebrates ten of Australia’s best health and medical research projects. In this interview series we explore the job, the person and the event that led to a career in medical research.

Introduction: I’m Dr Andi Horvath. Come with me and meet these Chief Investigators of medical research projects. Let’s go talk to Professor Len Harrison. He’s in the midst of actually vaccinating some potential sufferers of diabetes. This is a big change to the way diabetes has been dealt with.

Interviewer: Hello Professor Len Harrison, can we come and talk to you a little bit?

Prof Harrison: Hi Andi, sure.

Interviewer: How do you describe what you do as a job?

Prof Harrison: Basically what I want to do is prevent and cure Type 1 diabetes. And that’s a condition where the body’s immune system reacts against the cells that make insulin in the pancreas, called beta cells, and insulin is a hormone which is essential for life and if the beta cells are destroyed, then your life is threatened because you can’t control the level of glucose – sugar – in your body and that causes symptoms and complications. It leads to death unless you have insulin injections every day of your life. So we’re vaccinating people so that they make T-cells that are protective and not destructive to beta cells, so that they get in the way and protect the beta cells from being attacked by the immune cells.

Interviewer: We’re really keen to know, what sort of things you do from day-to-day?

Prof Harrison: I guess you have to be honest and say that a lot of it now for me is administration, managing other people, organizing work for them, you know just keeping the place going, but in each day I like to catch a little bit of time where I can be creative. Sometimes that’s not at work, sometimes that’s when I first wake up in the morning, when I lie in bed for an hour if I’ve got that much time, thinking deliberately, just thinking about nothing in particular until something interesting comes into my head, because the rest of the day is terribly busy. I see patients in the hospital, I try to do experiments. When I go to the lab, the people in my lab say ‘get out of here’, (laughter) ‘it’s too many years since you’ve worked at the bench and you’re dangerous’. But seriously, I try to work out the design of the experiments with them, I spend time analyzing their data and I go to meetings, I give talks, etc.

Interviewer: Do you manage a work-life balance?

Prof Harrison: I have a farm actually, an orchard in the Yarra Valley, so that gets me away from work but even when I’m out there – when I’m not outside driving a tractor – I’m inside on my computer. I try to do everything with my wife and family. My wife is also a research scientist, so she understands what life for a research scientist is like and is very, very supportive.

Interviewer: So what’s the most exciting part of your job?

Prof Harrison: I would say analyzing data and realizing that the information, the results that you got, actually conform to the plan for the experiment and you’ve discovered something that you predicted might happen.

Interviewer: That would be exciting. So how did you get interested in your field?

Prof Harrison: I guess my interest in science in general was stimulated by having a very good chemistry and physics teacher at high school. Prior to that I was just a dead-beat, (laughter) and you know I probably could have ended up doing anything. But this guy really inspired me and I looked up to him and as a result of that I went to university and I did chemical engineering. I found chemical engineering rather boring. I ended up in a factory making polystyrene, pressing buttons and sitting in front of a control panel and that was not particularly exciting so I went back and did medicine. When I finished medicine I guess I was unhappy about how much we were just told without having things explained, so there was so much information you had to absorb without actually understanding why. I guess medicine was a way into biology, which was a way into understanding the answers to very important questions.

Interviewer: Right, so your curiosity led you into this field of becoming a researcher via chemical engineering and via medicine. So how long did it take to become a researcher, it took quite a few years?

Prof Harrison: Yeah, I guess it did. Four years in hospitals and then in a specialty and then into research. I wanted to do research by that stage. So I wanted to combine it with clinical medicine, which is what I did. I went then to the USA for four years and eventually came back to Australia for various reasons, mainly family. So I guess I’ve been in research for over 30 years now.

Interviewer: What sorts of courses of study do you recommend for people who might be interested in a career in medical research? There’s different ways of getting in.

Prof Harrison: There are many different things you can do. You don’t have to come into it by having a medical degree, but I think that helps because it gives you an overview of biology and an understanding of the relevance of basic research to human health. I think if I was giving someone career advice I would ask them, you know really, try and find out what interests them, and if they were interested in being a leader in medical research I’d say get a PhD early or do medicine and go straight into research.

Interviewer: Great advice. Thanks. Professor Len Harrison from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Melbourne. Thank you for talking to us.

Prof Harrison: Thanks Andi.

Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You’ll find more information about this and other Health and Medical Research issues on our website at