Meet Professor Ian van Driel
Head of Department
BSc, MSc, PhD
Tell us about the newly formed Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology?
The consolidation of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology brings benefits to both units in terms of critical mass, interdisciplinary teaching and the development of an integrated research program spanning discovery science trough to drug development. Both departments have long and proud histories, and have now come together to produce a department with a remarkable breadth and depth in research expertise that underpin our key themes of molecular understanding of disease, translational research, drug discovery and development.
What are some of the synergies between the two former departments and the benefits of amalgamating them?
The current research strengths of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics are in the molecular understanding of disease, translational research and drug development. This portfolio compliments the research in Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which is renowned for basic research and an increasing focus on drug development.
It is envisaged to consolidate the research activities of the new Department in the Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute (Bio21 Institute) which has cutting-edge facilities, research platforms and strong links with biotech industry co-tenants. With respect to teaching, the departments’ offerings are complimentary and we are looking forward to developing new courses across our joint areas of expertise.
What areas of biomedical sciences will the department focus on?
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has research strengths in molecular cell biology, structural biology and macromolecular imaging, protein biochemistry, molecular immunology, neurobiology and computational biology. We apply our strengths to diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, malaria, parasite infections and inflammatory autoimmune diseases.
Members with a Pharmacology and Therapeutics background will be actively involved in research and teaching of pharmacology of the cardiovascular and central nervous system, respiratory pharmacology and molecular pharmacology. Focus remains on information technology with development of multimedia teaching methods and there are strong links with the pharmaceutical industry thanks to our collaborative research programs.
Tell us about the affiliation and opportunities the department has with the Bio21 Institute?
The University’s Bio21 Institute is a world-class multidisciplinary research centre specialising in medical, agricultural and environmental biotechnology. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology researchers have been located at Bio21 since its opening in 2005.
The Bio21 Institute is home to more than 600 researchers in biochemistry, chemistry, genetics, neuroscience, environmental science, dentistry and engineering. It supports several major technology platforms including the Melbourne Advanced Microscopy Facility, the Magnetic Resonance Facility, the Melbourne Mass spectrometry and Proteomics Facility, Metabolomics Australia, the Macromolecular Interactions Facility, a peptide synthesis facility, as well as High Performance Computing and facilities for animal models. The Bio21 Institute also has research facilities for a number of biotechnology companies including the major research laboratories of CSL, Australia’s largest pharmaceutical and biotechnology company. This means, the department and the Bio21 Institute provide outstanding career opportunities for staff and superb training facilities and environment for our students.
Explain your research and inspires you about your work?
I concentrate on bacteria that cause disease in the lung, particularly bacteria which causes Legionnaires' disease, Legionella. We’re really interested in finding out firstly, how our bodies react to this pathogen and why some people will have a life threatening disease, whereas others won't – which is very similar to COVID-19. We want to know more about the differences in responses, which lead to a good or bad outcome. Secondly, we are trying to find out how the bacteria manipulates cells in our body. Legionella is quite exceptional in that it can inject lots of proteins into our body’s cells, and those proteins change the way the cells behave and react. So, our program is exploring how some of these proteins work and what their actions are, and what the effect is on our health.
Why is the School – and the Biomedical Precinct – a great place to study and work?
Being part of one of the largest biomedical precincts in the world is a huge strength of the School. The access to people of the highest calibre, resourcing and facilities are second to none. For those who want to translate their findings into medicine, then this is the place to do it. And, we’re also growing our strengths in drug discovery and development. The precinct has collaboration in its DNA. To really make an impact on advancing human health you need to pull people together who have different capabilities and expertise as well as resources and infrastructure.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to get more involved in contributing to how organisations are run earlier on in my career. I now see this as a huge positive not only for career development, but also in terms of advancing my science because it’s such a good way to build strong networks in your area. You can also develop tools to work with people and help lead people. All of these soft skills are really important in what is a very social profession.