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Corporate entry Clinical Research Unit (1945 - 1996)

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Medical Research
Alternative Names
  • Burnet Clinical Research Unit (Subsequent name)


The Clinical Research Unit was formed in 1945 in a partnership with the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It included a new thirty-bed ward within the Hospital and was initially funded by the Melbourne Metropolitan Racing Clubs and the National Health and Medical Research Council. Around 1964 the Unit became more integrated within the Institute and its research activities were redefined to include immunological studies. By 1981 the Unit consisted of four key laboratories: the Immunopathology Laboratory, the Lions' Clinical Cancer Laboratory, the Immunoserology Laboratory and the Experimental Allergy Laboratory. The later was renamed the Rheumatology Research Laboratory in 1984. In 1986 the Unit was renamed the Burnet Clinical Research Unit and became a joint Institute/Royal Melbourne Hospital/University of Melbourne facility. The Burnet Clinical Research Unit was amalgamated with the Transplantation Unit to create the Autoimmunity and Transplantation Division in 1996.


The Clinical Research Unit underwent many restructures and expansions throughout its existence. A Biomedical Computation Laboratory was introduced in 1967 to develop better systems of processing medical information, and was maintained until January 1980. In 1977 a Lion's sponsored Cancer Research Laboratory was established within the Unit and in 1985 the Immunopathology and Immunoserology Laboratories were amalgamated into the Clinical Immunology Laboratory. 1987 saw further changes with the Rheumatology Research Laboratory renamed the Diabetes & Rheumatology Laboratory, the Lion's Clinical Cancer Laboratory move to the Cellular Immunology Unit and the Clinical Immunology Laboratory was renamed the Immunoserology Laboratory and provided State-wide diagnostic services. In 1994/95 the Reid Memorial Laboratory was established for research into rheumatoid arthritis.

Research in the Unit initially focused on serological investigations of Oriental Schistosomiasis in Australian servicemen, complement fixation in malaria, treatment of osteomyelitis in rabbits with penicillin and haemolytic disease of the new-born. The following years the research moved onto digestive system diseases and infectious hepatitis. The Clinical Research Unit successfully developed a method for liver aspiration biopsies and by 1947/48 gastrointestinal tract diseases, particularly abnormalities of the stomach, duodenum, liver and pancreas, were the Units main focus. They also studied the social and nutritional factors which influence these diseases.

In the 1950s the Unit broadened its scope to include human auto-immune diseases such as lupus erythematosus, thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and primary biliary cirrhosis. This work was recognised with the awarding of the 1960 Nobel Prize in Medicine to Sir Macfarlane Burnet. Throughout this time the hospital continued to maintain its 27-bed ward and numerous clinical disease studies.

Around 1966 the Unit established the immunosuppressive drug azothioprine which is still widely used today to prevent organ transplant rejection and to treat diseases including lupus erythematosus. From the late 1970s into the 1980s the Clinical Research Unit was concerned with autoimmunities, tumour immunology, immunodeficiencies, histocompatability, allergies, eosinophil action, and biological data computation. The emergence of AIDS in Australia saw the Unit take up studies on the consequences of infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

1989/1990 saw another round of reorganisations within the Unit and a shift to human autoimmune diseases, particularly insulin-dependent diabetes (IDD), thyroid disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis. In 1994 the Unit began preclinical trials on pancreatic islet autoantigens, the target of the IDD autoimmune response and it also expanded its rheumatoid arthritis research with the establishment of the Reid Memorial Laboratory.

Published resources


Emily Geraghty & Annette Alafaci