Leaving a legacy

Dr Arthur Christopoulos is making a significant mark in the world of pharmacology through his groundbreaking research and personal quest to make drugs more selective

As a child, Dr Arthur Christopoulos says he was always inquisitive – he gets it from his mother. A migrant who was pulled out of school in Greece at the age of 16 to embark on new beginnings in Australia, Arthur says his mother was always academic, contrary to her occupation; a machinist in a factory.

His research focuses on making the drugs act like a “dimmer switch, to dial into the exact activity you want them to”

“She made sure her kids got the education and that’s why scholastically we did well,” Arthur tells Neos Kosmos, with his brother Steve following in his pharmacological footsteps. But unlike Steve – who works as a pharmacist, Arthur’s thirst for knowledge, to know how things work, saw him take the research path.

It was in high school, and thanks to an inspirational chemistry teacher, that Arthur gravitated towards medicine. His work experience was done in a pharmacy and even though he finished high school with marks high enough to undertake a medical degree, he stayed true to the pharmacy path.
While Arthur was undertaking his PhD in the early ’90s, he was also working part-time as a pharmacist and running the clinic. There he saw first-hand how sub-optimal medicines and treatments were for patients. And this is where his groundbreaking and internationally recognised research started; his quest to make drugs more selective, in simpler terms, to try and make drugs free of side effects and target the protein they are set to.

“The majority of drugs on the market – nearly all of them – act by targeting certain proteins in the body, but you want them to go after one protein,” he explains, yet because they hit other proteins also, side effects occur. His research states if you can make drugs more selective then they should only go after the protein that’s involved in the disease and nowhere else, making drugs safer and more effective.

His research found that most proteins in the body have different regions on them that you can make the drugs target.
“The best analogy I give to people is to think of most drugs as a light switch, so with most you are switching the light on or off,” he explains, “but that’s not how the body works.
“The body is much more subtle than that, but if you give it a drug you are either activating something or you’re blocking something. So the mechanisms of the drugs that I look at – that I am talking about with these other sites – it’s more like a dimmer switch, it’s a bit of fine tuning, and that’s the difference.”

His research focuses on making the drugs act like a “dimmer switch, to dial into the exact activity you want them to”.
“With most drugs on the market the light is on or off and you have no control, and that’s why you suffer from more side effects,” he says.
His research, which began over two decades ago, is gaining notoriety in the pharmaceutical industry and academia, as its revealing new things about how the body works.

As it stands, Arthur is one of the world’s leading receptor pharmacologists. This research has led him to be the recipient of two highly distinguished awards – the John J. Abel Award in Pharmacology and the Michael Rand Medal.
“It’s a real honour, as they are big awards for the discipline of pharmacology,” he says. As the youngest recipient of the Michael Rand Medal he says this opens up Australia as one of the leaders in drug manufacturing research. As for the John J. Abel Award, he says the recognition shows that his work has made a “fundamental difference and changed the field”. Five recipients of that award have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, putting him in a high class of achievers in his field.
But not one to rest on his laurels, Arthur says there is still so much to do in his twenty-year-long research project.

When he first began the research, he spent ten years investigating and learning, but it was at the turn of the millennium that his peers began to take notice.
“Now it’s exploded,” he says of his findings.
“In the last decade it’s become mainstream in terms of being accepted, not in terms of being translated into real discovery, but now, because a concept has to be taken up and then people have to not just pay lip service to it, but actually understand it, start using it, start exploiting it.”

Arthur currently works out of his lab at Monash University as a researcher in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. The institute that he works out of has partnered up with French pharmaceutical company Servier, who have funded long term positions at the lab, so they are providing jobs for Australians to discover new drugs.
“It’s the biggest drug discovery deal ever signed in an Australian lab and it’s a huge coup for Victoria, as it’s employing people here in an academic institution to do drug discovery for the next five years at least, and probably go longer if we can.
“You have the academic freedom but you are working towards an applied real outcome so as well as doing the science that I want to publish, I also want to do my bit to find medicine – that’s hard, especially in this day and age, the rate of medicine discovery is at an all-time low,” he says.
And he’s hoping his research is taken on by the next generation and explored further. His aim is to inspire future pharmaceutical researchers and ultimately leave behind a legacy that they can take forth in years to come.

He says he gets the best of both worlds when new pharmacists choose to do their post-doctoral studies at his lab. Some come from countries far and wide and bring their knowledge and their research to his Melbourne-based lab, so he learns from them, and they are inspired by him too.
“I want the next generation to take it and go even further,” he says earnestly. “I’m inspired as I have the new people challenging me and asking me questions and making me think. They bring in new ideas with other experiences, especially when post docs come from overseas to join my lab.
“I don’t want this [research] to end with me.”