Professor Don Chisholm awarded Doctor of Science by UNSW Australia

Garvan warmly congratulates Professor Don Chisholm, who has been awarded a Doctor of Science (DSc) by UNSW Australia.
Professor Don Chisholm awarded Doctor of Science by UNSW Australia

Professor Don Chisholm (R) receives his DSc from David Gonski, Chancellor of UNSW Australia

14 December 2015

The Garvan Institute of Medical Research warmly congratulates Professor Don Chisholm, who has been awarded a Doctor of Science (DSc) by UNSW Australia. This higher doctorate is accorded in recognition of a body of work that has made a significant contribution to a field of knowledge.

In Prof Chisholm’s career, which spans almost five decades, he has made numerous advances in the fields of endocrinology and diabetes, and particularly in our understanding of insulin resistance and how it relates to obesity. In 1999, he was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to medicine and medical research.

A clinician as well as a researcher, Prof Chisholm has long worked to ensure strong links between basic diabetes research and clinical care of diabetes patients. He was closely involved in the establishment of the St Vincent’s Diabetes Centre in Sydney in 1980, and became the Centre’s founding director (1980-1991). The Centre brings together diabetes research at Garvan with the clinical care of diabetes patients.

Beyond his clinical and research work, Prof Chisholm has made significant contributions to governance over more than 20 years. He has served on numerous Sisters of Charity boards, including the St Vincents and Mater Health Services Board, and the national St Vincents Health Board. In addition, he has been Vice-President of the International Diabetes Federation and President of the Australian Diabetes Society, and has served on the Council of the College of Physicians.

Prof Chisholm has a long association with Garvan. He came first to the Institute in 1968 to learn about hormone assays and do endocrinology research with Professor Les Lazarus. He worked closely with Prof Ted Kraegen (then a PhD student), who would become one of his closest colleagues at Garvan and a long-time collaborator.

Prof Chisholm says, “Ted and I were both new kids on the block – and we did a lot of work together on how gut hormones affect insulin secretion, which was quite notable at the time.”

After stints at McGill University (Montreal), University of Michigan and University of Melbourne, Prof Chisholm returned to Garvan in 1978 to act as Assistant Director and co-lead its Diabetes Research Program with Prof Kraegen. Prof Chisholm was to lead or co-lead the Diabetes Research Program for the next 25 years.

“When I came back to Garvan,” Prof Chisholm says, “the Diabetes Research Program was Ted [Kraegen] and I and half a research assistant. By the time I was involved in recruiting my replacement (Professor David James, whom I had co-supervised as a PhD student, with Ted), it was 45 people or more – and one of the biggest and best diabetes programs in Australia.

“At the time I returned, Ted and I were focusing on improving insulin delivery for people with diabetes (particularly type 1), but as we explored the different responses to insulin, we shifted our research towards insulin resistance, and really it has stayed that way ever since 

“The area that I’ve been particularly interested in, and achieved some recognition in, is the issue of how obesity causes insulin resistance, and particularly the fact that intra-abdominal fat and liver fat promote insulin resistance, whereas peripheral fat, and particularly gluteal fat, is metabolically ‘good fat’.”

During the 1990s, Prof Chisholm and colleagues worked in collaboration with a major pharmaceutical company to understand the mechanism of a then-new class of anti-diabetic drugs, the thiazolidinediones.

“We found that the main mechanism was to increase ‘good fat’ – so it wasn’t all good because people’s weight increased, but they did become more insulin sensitive.”

Another research highlight for Prof Chisholm was his work on the metabolic complications of early HIV therapies, with Prof Katherine Samaras of Garvan, and Prof David Cooper and Prof Andrew Carr (both leaders in HIV research in Australia).

“David and Andrew were seeing surprising metabolic complications in patients who were treated with the early anti-HIV drugs. We collaborated in describing the HIV lipodystrophy syndrome, in which those drugs destroy ‘good’ fat, making individuals more insulin-resistant.

“That had quite an impact – the first three papers we published had over 5000 citations – and it changed the game for the pharmaceutical industry because they then took pains to produce drugs that didn’t have these side-effects.”

The most recent highlight of Prof Chisholm’s research has been his work on insulin resistance and hepatitis C.

“I was approached by Prof Jacob George (Westmead Hospital) – and, with Kerry-Lee Milner (a PhD student), we investigated why people with hepatitis C have insulin resistance. To our surprise, and I think everybody else’s surprise, it turned out it was due to insulin resistance in muscle. We had all expected that insulin resistance in liver would be the culprit.”

Assoc Prof Jerry Greenfield (who heads the Department of Endocrinology at St. Vincent's Hospital and co-leads the Clinical Diabetes, Appetite and Metabolism lab at Garvan) was co-supervised by Prof Chisholm during his PhD. He has warm memories of conducting his research under Prof Chisholm’s supervision.

“Don was always an engaged and thoughtful mentor – to me and to the many other students he has supervised,” says Assoc Prof Greenfield.

“Don and I still enjoy a close professional relationship: we have worked together for over 15 years on the mechanisms of insulin resistance and the development of type 2 diabetes. I value his scientific insight, his compassion for the patients he works with and his humble approach – and I congratulate him on receiving this well-deserved award.”

Prof Chisholm is quick to point out that his achievements are not his alone.

“It’s all very much about all the wonderful people I’ve worked with,” he says, “whether medical, scientific or laypeople, and of course having a wonderful wife, Judy, who made it all possible.”

Prof Chisholm has asked that this article acknowledge his key colleagues and collaborators by name, along with the PhD scholars he has supervised whose work has contributed strongly to his research efforts. Prof Chisholm wishes to acknowledge the following:

  • The Sisters of Charity
  • Prof Les Lazarus
  • Prof John Shine
  • Prof Ted Kraegen
  • Prof Lesley Campbell
  • Assoc Prof Arthur Jenkins
  • Prof Greg Cooney
  • Assoc Prof Jerry Greenfield
  • Prof Kathy Samaras
  • Prof David James
  • Prof Len Storlien
  • Dr Dorit Samocha-Bonet
  • Dr Adamandia Kriketos
  • Assoc Prof Leonie Heilbronn
  • The late Dr Stuart Furler
  • Prof David Cooper
  • Prof Andrew Carr
  • Prof Jacob George
  • Past PhD scholars: David James, Tom Hauser, Wendy Pascoe, David Bruce, David Carey, Mark Borkman, Tony O'Sullivan, Kathy Samaras, Tania Markovic, Ross Laybutt, Simon Chalkley, Seng Khee Gan, Anne Poynten, Jerry Greenfield, Louise Maple-Brown, Kenneth Ho, Monique Stone, Alison Harmer, Gail Trapp, Kerry-Lee Milner, Samantha Hocking, Daniel Chen.