Macfarlane Burnet Medal awarded to ‘Smooth Muscle Man’

October 04, 2017
Professor Geoffrey Burnstock has been awarded the Macfarlane Burnet Medal.

Australian and British neurobiologist Professor Geoffrey Burnstock has been awarded the Australian Academy of Science’s Macfarlane Burnet Medal in recognition of his outstanding scientific research in the biological sciences.

Professor Burnstock, who was elected as a Fellow of the Academy 1971, is internationally recognised for the discovery of purinergic neurotransmission (i.e. ATP as an extracellular signalling molecule), a novel signalling system between cells that is of central importance for many biological processes.

His 1972 discovery, and later 1976 commentary in Neuroscience on cotransmission*, challenged established concepts of the biology of cell messengers and neurotransmission. The purinergic concept was not initially accepted by the scientific community, and it took twenty years for Professor Burnstock to prove his hypothesis.

More recently, Professor Burnstock has focused on the pathophysiology and therapeutic potential of purinergic signalling. This research has had an impact on the understanding of pain mechanisms, osteoporosis, chronic cough, hypertension, cancer, bladder, kidney and neurodegenerative diseases.

One drug to result from Professor Burnstock’s research is clopidogrel, which is used to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in high risk patients. Global sales are in the billions of dollars.

Emeritus Professor Derek Denton from the University of Melbourne, who nominated Professor Burnstock for the award, says he has been, and continues to be an inspiration for many.

“His vision and creativity have enabled and driven the research of a very large number of laboratories around the world,” Emeritus Professor Denton said.

“He has personally supervised over 100 PhD and MD students and over 60 post-doctoral fellows and since his first report published in 1957 in the journal Nature, he has published more than 1500 papers, which have been cited more than 101,000 times.”

The 88 year-old is returning to Australia later this year to continue his scientific investigations after a 42-year career at University College London. Between 1959 and 1975, Professor Burnstock also worked at the University of Melbourne.

“It is a particular pleasure on my return to live in Melbourne to have been honoured in this way,” Professor Burnstock said.

Geoffrey Burnstock with the late Mollie Holman looking at the records of their electrophysiology experiments of neuromuscular transmission in the guinea pig vas deferens in Melbourne in 1960. Photo: Supplied

Professor Burnstock is known as the ‘smooth muscle man’ due to his early research which focused on the biology of smooth muscle. In 1957 he developed a new method for recording the electrophysiology of smooth muscle cells.

Smooth muscle refers to a muscle of the human body that is part of an involuntary muscle group. They can be found in the walls of the stomach and blood vessels, intestines, bladder, veins, and prostate, among other places.

Professor Burnstock will deliver a lecture on his lifetime’s work at the Australian Academy of Science’s Science at the Shine Dome in May 2018. More information about Professor Burnstock.

The Macfarlane Burnet Medal and Lecture is named after Nobel Laureate and virologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. Past winners include Nobel Laureate Barry Marshall, former Academy president and molecular biologist Suzanne Cory, Sir Gustav Nossal and Emeritus Professor Derek Denton.


* The concept of cotransmission, in contrast to the generally held belief that one nerve only utilised one neurotransmitter, was formulated in a Commentary in Neuroscience in 1976. Initially, ATP was shown to be a cotransmitter with noradrenaline in sympathetic nerves, but it is now known that ATP is a cotransmitter with classical transmitters in most, if not all, nerves in both the peripheral and central nervous systems.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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