Ruth Bishop, a scientist with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and professor at the University of Melbourne, has been appointed a Companion to the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
In 1973 Professor Bishop, then a researcher at The Royal Children’s Hospital, along with Professor Ian Holmes at the University of Melbourne, discovered rotavirus, the cause of severe gastroenteritis causing millions of deaths in children around the world. At that time the cause for this devastating illness was unknown.
Professor Bishop proposed that a virus may be this elusive infective agent and sent the intestinal biopsies taken from children with acute gastroenteritis at The Royal Children’s Hospital for electron-microscopy examination at the University of Melbourne. Under the electron microscopy, it was clear that the intestinal cells were infected with a wheel-like virus, subsequently named rotavirus. This virus was then shown to be the major cause of severe dehydrating gastroenteritis in children under five years of age around the world.
In a television interview, Prof Bishop tried to describe her joy after identifying the virus.
“It was so sort of satisfying to solve a puzzle,” Prof Bishop said. “You can’t really imagine what it is like until it has happened to you and fortunately it has happened to me at least once in my career.”
Ms Bishop is the first woman to be awarded the Florey Medal. On this Queen’s Birthday (June 6) she was one of only two Victorians to receive Companions to the Order of Australia.
“I am honoured and grateful to receive this award,” she said.
Professor Bishop’s discovery meant that vaccines could be developed to target the prevention of rotavirus. Rotavirus vaccines have now been introduced in the routine immunization programs of 98 countries, including Australia.
The impact of rotavirus vaccines has been dramatic, with marked reductions in diarrheal deaths and hospitalisations. Prior to the introduction of rotavirus vaccines in Australia more than 10,000 children were admitted to hospital with rotavirus gastroenteritis, now wards like the gastroenteritis ward at The Royal Children’s Hospital, have been closed.
However, more than two thirds of children still do not receive a rotavirus vaccine, most living in countries with highest child mortality.
Julie Bines, lead of the rotavirus program at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Victor and Loti Smorgon Professor at the University of Melbourne, has worked closely with Professor Bishop over two decades.
“The discovery of rotavirus as the major cause of severe gastroenteritis in young children worldwide is arguably Australia’s most significant contribution to global child health,” Professor Bines said.
“She has been a strong role model for women in science and has demonstrated the impact of good science in tackling one of the world’s big problems.”
Now MCRI has made another remarkable breakthrough – researchers have developed a novel oral rotavirus vaccine, RV3-BB, which can be given to babies soon after birth, to provide the earliest possible protection from rotavirus disease. It is hoped that RV3-BB vaccine will soon have a major role in improving protection from rotavirus disease from birth globally.
MCRI congratulates Professor Bishop on her award.