Recorded: 15 Jan 2003
And then after that back here in Melbourne, when we first got to Melbourne things were very, very difficult for us because we were trying to do molecular biology in a place that had no molecular biology at that time. And we were really struggling to come up with—to being able to do the affected work. And then we managed to—Suzanne Corey and I managed to work out a way of trying to study messenger RNA, the 5’ ends of messenger RNA. We were able to identify what is now called the cap structures on messenger RNA and that was a wonderful achievement because it helped to explain the way in which messenger RNA is read, but it was also a great personal satisfaction because we finally had done something here in Melbourne. We’d shown that we could actually deliver the goods and achieve something here.
And then we went back to the major problem that we had taken on here of trying to get the messenger RNA for immunoglobin so we could understand something about how antibodies are made. And that problem proved quite difficult. I remember when we first came to the institute I had one of my first meetings with Macfarlane, first and only meetings with Macfarlane Burnett, and I explained to him what we planned to do. We planned to use this new methodology to sequence, sequence immunoglobin messenger RNAs and determine their structure. And he said, “I would have thought that would probably take about five years.” And I was shocked because I had no—I though we probably do it in a fraction of that time. But I think in fact that Burnett was probably pretty close on. It may have even taken a bit longer than five years to do. And in fact it was really only the development of the cloning methodology that made it even possible to find.
And so that was a very exciting adventure to get involved and try to set up molecular cloning here in Melbourne. It was very controversial at the time. There was even a public meeting in the university where a student activist group wanted to shut down all that sort of research just as happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts with the city council. Here there was talk of shutting it down but it never came to that. And finally a lot of regulatory hurdles were put in our way to make it very difficult for us to get it going. But we finally did get it going and I suppose then one of the great exciting moments for me personally would have been when we got our molecular clones, because that suddenly meant that we were going to finally contribute importantly to the solution of the antibody problem.
Jerry Adams, currently Professor and Joint Head of Molecular Genetics of Cancer Division of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, is noted for his achievements in molecular biology, immunology and the molecular genetics of cancer. After completing his BSc in Chemistry at Emory University in 1962, he completed his Ph.D. at Harvard under James Watson. During this time, Adams and Mario Capecchi discovered the initiation mechanism for polypeptides. Adams earned his degree in 1967 and went on to do post-doctoral work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where he met his wife, Suzanne Cory. They did further research in Geneva, and in 1972 joined The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia.
Adams and his research team have made many major contributions to medical science. They were the first to clone mammalian genes in Australia and discovered: (i) that antibody genes encode to recombine in a myriad of ways to fight infection; (ii) the genetic mutation that leads to Burkitt’s lymphoma and (iii) the connection between apoptosis and cancer, while studying bcl-2 gene in follicular lymphoma (with David Vaux).
Adams is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1986), a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1992), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Victoria (1997) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.