Douglas Hilton was born in the United Kingdom in 1964 and migrated to Australia with his family in 1970 where he grew up in the idyllic outer suburb of Warrandyte, in the lower Yarra Valley, just north east of Melbourne.
He was educated at Warrandyte Primary School and East Doncaster High School, where he recalls being inspired by a fabulous biology teacher. As a 19-year-old Monash University undergraduate, Hilton was introduced to the amazing world of blood cells when he spent the summer holidays in Ian Young’s laboratory at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra. In his Honours year and as a PhD student, Hilton worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute with two giants of molecular haematology, Professors Don Metcalf and Nicos Nicola, to purify and patent a messenger protein called LIF, which is used by laboratories around the world to culture mouse embryonic stem cells.
After his PhD, Professor Hilton spent two formative years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Professor Harvey Lodish. During this time, he worked on trying to understand how the dedicated receptor on the surface of red blood cells recognises the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), famous for its clinical use in patients with renal failure and infamous for its illicit use by athletes.
Since returning to Australia in 1993, Professor Hilton has continued his research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute on communication between cells, discovering several hormone receptors and an entirely novel family of STOP signals named the Suppressors of Cytokine Signaling proteins or SOCS proteins. In recent years, together with Professor Warren Alexander and Dr. Benjamin Kile, Professor Hilton has established a new program using large-scale mouse genetics and genomics to identify which of the 30,000 genes in the genome regulate blood cell formation. The purpose of the program is to identify targets for the development of new medicines.
Professor Hilton has received many prizes and awards for his contribution to medical research, including the Amgen Medical Researcher Award, the inaugural Commonwealth Health Minister’s Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research and the GlaxoSmithKline Australia Award for Research Excellence. In 2004 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and currently serves on this organisation’s council. In 2010 he was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
Throughout his career, Professor Hilton has been actively involved in the application of research through collaboration with industry. He is an inventor on more than 20 patent families, most of which have been licensed. He co-founded the biotechnology company Murigen Therapeutics, a company developing treatments for inflammatory diseases, cancer, thrombocytopenia and thalessemia and actively collaborates with CSL, a company focused on human health with more than 90 years experience in the development and manufacture of vaccines and plasma protein biotherapies.
In addition to his scientific achievements and accomplishments, Professor Hilton has been very active in promoting science and research to young people. He was a key speaker at many Future Leaders Forums in which several hundred high-achieving secondary school students are exposed to leaders in many walks-of-life. He has been a scientist in residence at secondary schools and is a member of curriculum committee of the Gene Technology Access Centre (GTAC), which was established by the Victorian Government to promote excellence and innovation in secondary science education. Professor Hilton also piloted and established Australia’s most successful program to provide tertiary science students with a taste of life as researcher. Based on the eponymous MIT program started in 1969, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) pairs talented second and third year tertiary students to the laboratories of first class researchers, where they are given their own research project. Since its inception in 1998, when one student worked in his lab, the Program has expanded into five states, involves all of Australia’s leading medical research institutions and has provided initial research experiences to hundreds of students, most of whom have gone on to PhDs.
Professor Hilton became the sixth director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in its 95-year history on 1 July 2009. The Institute is affiliated with The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital and offers postgraduate training in the Department of Medical Biology of The University of Melbourne. Professor Hilton serves as Professor and Head of the Department of Medical Biology at the University of Melbourne. He continues to live in Warrandyte with his wife Adrienne, sons Josh and Zeph, and their Kelpie, Jessie.