Cooper, David Albert

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BSc(Med) 1969 MB BS 1972 FRCPA FRACP MD (UNSW) DSc (UNSW) FRCP

David Cooper first recognised the seroconversion illness in HIV infection and AIDS in 1985, and became the inaugural Director of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Special Unit in AIDS Epidemiology in 1986.

David graduated from Medicine at the University of Sydney in 1972. John Hickie writes that even in his early years, David was a “keen, enthusiastic student, it was clear he was already committed to clinical immunology”.[1] He completed his residency at St Vincent’s Hospital in 1973 and became the first Postgraduate Research Fellow in Immunology on a postgraduate scholarship from the University of NSW.

In 1975, David travelled to the United States where he was a Cancer Council Fellow at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, Tucson, Arizona. Back in Sydney, he was awarded an NHMRC scholarship at St Vincent’s from 1976 to 1979. He was appointed Staff Specialist in Immunology in 1979, remaining in that role until 1983, the year he was awarded his MD from the University of New South Wales.

David returned to the United States in 1981 as an Applied Health Sciences Fellow in the Division of Tumour Immunology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at the Harvard Medical School. David was working in the laboratory which had recently discovered cell surface markers of T-cells (the cells attacked by the virus) when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the United States. He describes the situation in Australia upon his return in 1983:

Gay men were beginning to get sick with viral illnesses…Using one of the first HIV antibody tests, we were able to show when people first got infected and to describe what happened, in terms of illness and immune response. The results drew a lot of attention around the world.[1]

In 1985, in his position as Staff Specialist, David was credited with recognising the seroconverting illness in HIV infection and AIDS, a finding published in The Lancet. A year later, he became a Senior Lecturer in Medicine at the University of New South Wales, and was also appointed Director of the newly established NHMRC Special Unit in AIDS Epidemiology and Clinical Research (later renamed in 1990 as the National Centre for HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research), a role in which he remains today. He describes the development of HIV research at the centre:

We realised we couldn’t conduct the clinical trials on our own, so we started collaborating with European researchers and the USA’s National Institutes for Health. Throughout the 1980s, the various drugs that were developed were fairly inadequate, but in the 1990s we began to see breakthroughs, particularly in the form of protease inhibitors. This revolutionised HIV treatment and by 1996, we and others discovered that new forms of medication in combination were able to completely suppress the virus so that the person’s immune system could recover.[1]

In 1988, David was appointed Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of New South Wales and became an NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, and also received the inaugural Newman Award for excellence in AIDS research. Committed to making HIV treatment accessible in developing countries, in 1991, David was appointed Chair of the WHO Global Program in AIDS standing committee on clinical research and drug development. He speaks of his work in Southeast Asia:

Following the advent of the three antiretroviral drugs in 1996, two colleagues and I formed a clinical research centre in Bangkok. Since then it has grown to a research organisation of approximately 80 staff, who are conducting clinical trials relevant to Thailand and the region. Because Cambodia has been hit harder by the epidemic than any other country in Asia, we also established an antiretroviral treatment access program that operates from a clinic in Phnom Penh. Providing access to treatment for Cambodians and other particularly vulnerable people is something I’m very proud of.[1]

In 1994, David was appointed Professor and was awarded a DSc by the University of New South Wales. John Hickie describes David as “a quiet, pleasant dynamo with an excellent sense of humour and the ability to sail through the many squalls and shallows of AIDS politics, both nationally and internationally”.[1]

In 2003, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia “for service to medicine as a clinician, researcher and leading contributor in the field of HIV/AIDS research, and to the development of new treatment approaches”.[1] In 2004 David was named Scientia Professor by the University of New South Wales.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Cooper, David Albert. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.