Metcalf, Donald

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BSc (Med) 1951 MB BS 1953 MD 1961 Hon DSc MD (Oslo) FRCPA FRACP Hon FAA FRS

Donald Metcalf is world-renowned for his pioneering work on the regulation of blood cell formation and the control of leukemic cells. In 1965, he developed a series of specialised culture techniques permitting the growth of various types of blood cells. These cultures led him and his team to the discovery of the colony stimulating factors, now known as CSFs, hormones which control white blood cell formation and resistance to infections.

Donald Metcalf graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney in 1953 after completing a BSc (Med) in virology. After an internship at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, he joined the staff of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne in 1954 as the Carden Fellow in Cancer Research, a position he continues to hold. From 1965 to 1996, he was Head of the Cancer Research Unit and Assistant Director of the Institute, and in 1996 became Professor Emeritus of The University of Melbourne.

His work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has been interspersed with sabbatical years spent as Visiting Scientist at Harvard Medical School, Boston; the Roswell Park Memorial Institute, Buffalo; the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research, Lausanne; the Radiobiological Institute, Rijswijk, and the University of Cambridge.

Donald has been rightfully called ‘the father of hematopoietic cytokines’ for his pioneering work on the control of blood cell formation and the control of leukemic cells. In early studies, he discovered the function of the thymus gland in controlling the formation of lymphocytes, and beginning in 1965, co-developed a series of specialised culture techniques permitting the growth of the various types of blood cells. These cultures led him and his team to the discovery of the colony-stimulating factors (CSFs), hormones that control white blood cell formation and are, therefore, responsible for resistance to infection. His work, with that of others, led to the successful cloning of the genes for all four mouse and human CSFs, and the mass production of these hormones by bacterial, yeast, and other cells. His work provided the pivotal demonstration that the CSFs, when injected into animals, stimulated the formation and regulated the activity of white blood cells. Exploiting this, his collaborators then documented the effectiveness of GM-CSF and G-CSF (two primary white blood cell regulators) when injected into patients. These blood cell regulators have now been used in more than five million patients throughout the world as valuable reagents in accelerating the re-growth of blood cells following anti-cancer treatment and bone marrow or peripheral blood transplants. They permit improved methods for blood cell transplantation and for increasing resistance to infections.

In recent work, Donald and his colleagues have shown that insertion of uncontrolled CSF genes into blood cells can lead to leukaemia and other disease states. His group has also developed a new blood cell regulator, a leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF), that also has powerful actions on multiple tissues in the body and the SOCS family of genes (genes that control blood cell responses to cytokines). Overall, his work on the control of blood cell formation has revolutionised the understanding of many diseases of blood cells and their treatment. He has published 669 scientific papers and nine books on his research and is recognised internationally as the leader in his field.

He served for 14 years on the Executive Council of the Australian Cancer Society; for five years as a Founding Member of the Scientific Council of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, Lyon; and for 10 years as Chairman of the Program on Experimental Oncology of the International Union Against Cancer (UICC), Geneva. In 1976 and 1977 he was President of the International Society for Experimental Hematology and since 1972, has been a member of the Cancer Advisory Panel of the World Health Organization. He serves on the editorial boards of six international scientific journals in his field.

The corpus of his fundamental and applied research is to be found in more than 400 peer-reviewed scientific papers, 200 other scientific papers, and seven books. Donald has received some of the highest honours in the world of contemporary science. Among them he was made Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) and was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (FAA); Fellow of the Royal Society, London (FRS); and Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences of the US. He was also made an Honorary Member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Society, US in 1998, and Honorary Member of the Polish Society of Hematology in 2000. His prizes for research include:

  • The Wellcome Prize of the Royal Society (shared), London, 1986
  • The Bristol-Myers Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research (USA), 1987
  • The Hammer Prize for Cancer (USA), 1988
  • The Koch Prize of the Federal Republic of Germany
  • The Alfred P Sloan Prize of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation (shared), 1989
  • The Bertner Foundation Award of the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Centre, 1990
  • The Rabbi Shai Shacknai Prize of the Hadassah University, Jerusalem, 1990
  • The Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award (USA), 1993
  • The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University, 1993
  • The Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal, US National Academy of Sciences, 1994
  • The Caledonian Research Foundation Prize (Scotland), 1994
  • The Gairdner Foundation International Award, Canada,
  • The Torch of Learning Award, Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1994
  • The Ernst Neumann Award, International Society for Experimental Hematology, 1995
  • The Royal Medal, Royal Society, London, 1995
  • The Amgen Australia Prize, 1996
  • The Warren Alpert Foundation Prize, Harvard Medical School, 1996
  • The Chiron International Award, National Academy of Medicine, Italy, 2000
  • The Victoria Prize, Australia, 2000
  • The Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, 2001
  • The Donnall Thomas Prize of the American Society of Hematology, 2004
  • The Inaugural Salk Institute Prize for Research Excellence (USA), 2005


Donald continues to work full-time at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Links
Alumni Record


Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Metcalf, Donald. 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.