Akshay Venkatesh: this Perth-raised mathematician and professor is “one of Australia’s greatest minds”. Plus: Lisa Harvey-Smith and Jacques Miller.

Good Weekend’s Who Mattered 2019 : Science (by Konrad Marshall 30 November 2019)

Jacques Miller

Every year as Nobel Prize season warms up, Jacques Miller, 88, begins fielding calls from all over the world, all with the same message: This is going to be your year, Jacques. “And he always says, ‘No, no, no, I’m just an old man,’ ” says science writer Liam Mannix. “But his contributions to research underpin the way we now treat cancer. In science, you often work all your life at something, you retire, and you don’t know if any of it was worth doing. Jacques knows his toil was worth it.”

In 1961, Miller was studying leukaemia in newborn mice when he realised they were lacking a crucial white blood cell, which he named the T-cell (after the thymus, where they originate). T-cells, he discovered, were distinct from another type of cell he identified, B-cells, which work together as warriors of the immune system. “Nobody believed him,” says Mannix. “One of his colleagues wrote a paper and said the only thing that’s interesting about B and T cells is that they’re the first and last letters of the word ‘bullshit’. This is how other researchers responded to his work, calling it rubbish.”

Almost 60 years later, Miller’s work underpins immunotherapy, the incredible new technology that reactivates the immune system to fight cancer. Earlier this year, Miller was the joint winner of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (considered America’s Nobel Prize), for the work he did at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Right now, his work is saving thousands of lives around the world, and immunotherapy has only just got going – it will eventually be the biggest breakthrough in cancer research,” Mannix says. “It highlights the truism that sometimes, you’ve just gotta wait for your discoveries to change the world.”