Finding a cancer cure is his holy grail

BRAIN BOX: Professor Graham Le Gros, who has been made a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. 
BRAIN BOX: Professor Graham Le Gros, who has been made a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. 

A kiwi-grown cancer cure within the next decade is the goal of world-renowned Wellington immunologist Professor Graham Le Gros, who has been recognised in the Queen's Birthday honours list.

"It'll be our bit of Kiwi juice," said Le Gros, director of the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.

He admitted he was "incredulous" when Governor-General Jerry Mateparae wrote to him a few weeks ago to say he had been made a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

"It will recognise the importance of the work that is done at the Malaghan Institute and that I aspire to make it possible, which is important to a number of people in the community."

Last December, Science magazine nominated cancer immunotherapy as the world's most important breakthrough of 2013.

The magazine cover is pinned on his office wall in the heart of Victoria University's Kelburn campus.

Trials to cure cancer using a person's own immune system to fight their disease have been a major focus at the institute for years with some promising results, Le Gros says.

The latest, a melanoma trial, is due to finish next year.

He also hopes to develop vaccines against asthma, allergies and some common parasites that blight the health of a billion people living in tropical countries.

Talking with people fighting cancer is inspirational, he says.

Blenheim-born Le Gros, 58, spent his early years growing up in Singapore with his father, who was stationed there with the New Zealand Air Force.

His fascination with diseases and finding cures was born there, particularly after suffering whipworm, a nasty parasitic disease with an equally vile treatment of gentian violet.

"All you did was vomit the whole time."

While there, he saw the consequences of preventable diseases, such as polio, which struck a chord.

After returning to Blenheim aged 8, he later attended Marlborough Boys' College before heading to Massey University in Palmerston North, where he gained a bachelor of science in microbiology.

However, he failed miserably in his first year of master's studies, getting Ds and Es so was unceremoniously kicked out.

"Politics and girls were to blame," he says, laughing.

He took a job at the then National Health Institute in Wellington but realised he needed to continue his education so headed to Otago University for a one-year diploma in immunology.

A five-year PhD followed in immunology at Auckland University before he headed overseas to work in some world-leading centres, including three years at the National Institutes of Health in Washington DC and five years with drug giant Ciba-Geigy in Switzerland.

"I really picked up some incredible advantages because I was with some of the most important people in the world."

In 1994, he and his immunologist wife, Italian-born Professor Franca Ronchese, were lured back to Wellington to set up the institute.

"There was very little money but a tremendous will to make something like this happen."

It celebrated its 20th anniversary in April.

The institute's goal is making drugs by New Zealanders for New Zealanders but also to boost the country's medical research, fostering a new generation of top scientists.

Le Gros has other awards to his name, including the Wellington Medical Research Foundation's gold medal and Wellingtonian of the Year in the science and technology category in 2011.

But his greatest achievement, he says, is finding funding to ensure the institute's 85 scientists can continue their world-leading work towards curing some of the world's worst conditions.

"I hope [the award] makes Kiwis realise Kiwis can do stuff and make it happen here."

The Dominion Post