Remembering Professor Derek Hart

Professor Derek Hart
Professor Derek Hart

Professor Derek Hart was a passionate, driven and inspired clinician scientist who had a consuming motivation to improve medical care through a life committed to medical research. Through a career full of achievements he made many important discoveries that together built his grand vision for immune therapies based on dendritic cells as novel therapeutics for solid and liquid cancers as well as immunosuppression and controlling graft vs host disease.

Derek Hart was born and educated in New Zealand, graduating in 1976 with distinction and numerous awards from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Otago. After graduation he initially started on surgical training before winning a Rhodes Scholarship and, in 1981, submitting his DPhil on transplantation antigens while working at the Nuffield Department of Surgery, Oxford University. There he met his wife, Dr Georgina Clark, an Australian post-doctoral fellow co-worker forging a formidable career-long scientific team. Through these studies, Derek was particularly proud to have been the first to identify human dendritic cells, critical effectors in immune rejection, soon after Ralph Steinman’s 2011 Nobel Prize-winning discovery of dendritic cells in the mouse. In 1981 Derek returned to Christchurch to gain specialist medicine and pathology qualifications as a haematologist (FRACP, FRCPA) setting up a research-focussed Bone Marrow Transplantation Unit. In 1998 he was appointed the inaugural Professor/Director of the Mater Medical Research Institute in Brisbane where he served for a decade before being recruited in 2000 to the ANZAC Research Institute and the University of Sydney as Professor of Transplantation and Immunotherapy and NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow. In Sydney, at the ANZAC Research Institute he established the Dendritic Cell Research group which flourished under his inspiring and energetic leadership propelling it to become the focal point of a wide network of collaborating scientists at Concord, Westmead and RPA Hospitals supporting over 25 senior basic and clinical scientists, postdoctoral Fellows and students. Over his career Derek made many important discoveries and “firsts” as well as winning awards and honours in the course of training numerous clinician scientists as well as basic scientists, being equally at home in both domains. In recent years, he chaired the Ramaciotti Scientific Advisory Committee. Like all contemporary medical researchers he suffered regular mixed success in the peer-review grant system but the thought of giving up or changing direction never crossed his mind. Derek was also very active in commercialising his discoveries taking out key patents and establishing, in 2013, a spin-off company Dendrocyte BioTech which works towards developing new dendritic cell-based immune therapies.

Derek Hart lived and worked by his own high standards with a seemingly inexhaustible drive for scientific achievement and excellence. His legendary work habits derived crucial support from his resilient wife and scientific partner Georgina and his two cherished children Olivia and James. With characteristic courage and tenacity, Derek faced his final illness for over a year without flinching or self-pity. Instead, he redoubled his efforts in science and commercialisation including overseas travels to meet colleagues, investors and biotech companies as well as the careful installation of succession plans to secure his legacy of novel immune therapies. That legacy will be continued not just by the network centred on his Dendritic Research Group but also by the legion of scientists he trained in Christchurch, Brisbane and Sydney now spread worldwide. The world of medical research is a better place for Derek’s unequivocally committed life. He and his indomitable drive will be missed beyond measure.

Professor David Handelsman
ANZAC Research Institute