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Duty-bound and ready to deliver on vaccine

An alumnus driven by a desire to crack medical mysteries

As a trainee doctor, Professor Nikolai Petrovsky (BMedSc 1979, MBBS 1982) found it difficult to accept it when he ran out of treatment options for patients: they would live or die, and there was nothing more he could do.

“There are so many unanswered questions out there, and we are duty-bound to search for the answers through medical research, which is why I wanted to be a clinician and a scientist,” Professor Petrovsky said.

He has an insatiable desire to push the boundaries of what’s possible in order to help his patients.

This drives his mission to develop a vaccine for the most pressing global health issue of our time: COVID-19.

And it’s a mindset that was nurtured during his studies at the University of Tasmania. It would be easy to assume that Professor Petrovsky’s foray into medicine was predestined, but like his parents, he trod his own path towards a life of service.

His father, Dr Constantine Constantinovich Petrovsky, was a Russian who studied medicine in Hong Kong, worked as a young doctor in Singapore, joined the British Army there and ended up a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma railway.

After surviving the war, he moved to Tasmania to become the Superintendent of the Launceston General Hospital. His mother was a general practitioner in Launceston, where she still practices medicine.

Professor Petrovsky was fascinated by science from an early age. After schooling in Northern Tasmania and Victoria, he studied medicine in Hobart where inspirational lecturers fuelled his passion for research.

“The teaching was second to none. We had great mentors who taught us how important research was and that a clinician’s role was not just to treat diseases but to decipher their causes."

He trained in endocrinology before undertaking an immunology PhD at the University of Melbourne, during which time his first two children were born. “Ever since, I’ve split my time between working clinically as an endocrinologist and doing immunology research,” he said.

Completing his PhD, Professor Petrovsky’s career took an unexpected turn when he answered a plea from a hospital in country Victoria without any doctors.

A one month locum in Mildura turned into three years, during which his third child was born. He then joined the Canberra Hospital as an endocrinologist with academic status at the Australian National University.

In 2004 he moved to Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide to run the Endocrinology Department, where he has been ever since.

Professor Petrovsky also leads Vaxine, a research company he founded 18 years ago.

In July 2020, its COVID-19 vaccine developed in Australia to enter human trials.

The vaccine (COVAX-19) is a synthetic version of the COVID-19 spike protein.

This harmless replica of the virus protein teaches the immune system to recognise the virus, creating antibodies and T cells that attack the virus when it tries to enter the body.

Despite carrying the weight of the world’s expectations on their shoulders and working under intense pressure to accelerate development of the vaccine, Professor Petrovsky said his team remains optimistic about the prospect of success.

“The pressure on the team is intense, but we know we should be able to deliver a vaccine, because we’ve done it before,” he said.

In 2009 his team developed the world’s first swine flu vaccine; commencing human trials in less than three months.

Similarly, the team developed a SARS-1 coronavirus vaccine, which was effective in animal models. “We’ve been honing our skills in pandemic vaccine development for 20 years. Now is the time for us to deliver.”

Photograph: Professor Nikolai Petrovsky. Credit Matt Turner, Newspix.

–Lucie van den Berg

This article featured in the 2020 edition of the University of Tasmania Alumni magazine. You can read more stories here. To receive news about your alumni community, including the monthly eNews Alumni and Friends, please update your email address.

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Published on: 01 Apr 2021 7:20pm