John Hopwood’s passion for science and genetics solves rare children’s disorders

John Hopwood headshot

From a Diploma at Swinburne Tech, John Hopwood has gone on to become a world leader in the research, diagnosis and treatment of lysosomal diseases helping to save children’s lives. John is an Emeritus Professor at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

"I left school at 15 and my first boss, at the impressive age of 21, enormously influenced my career. He said, ‘John you’ve made a mistake’. He enrolled me at Swinburne Tech night school. His hair was beginning to grey – he’d just finished a bachelor degree at Melbourne University and drove an Austin 7 car – so I listened to him.

He enrolled me in an applied chemistry and chemical engineering diploma in 1955. I completed it over 10 years while working as a lab assistant at BALM Paints, then a subsidiary of ICI Australia.

In those days we did practical classes in organic chemistry that would take 12 hours every week to complete. I would do three lots of four hours just to finish the practical work. I travelled to Swinburne from Fishermen’s Bend, and one of my friends would often find me asleep at the back of the class.

Following my Swinburne diploma I went to Monash University and studied biochemistry and genetics. Here I first met Professor Joe Bornstein, who helped me to win a PhD scholarship”.

My wife and I had three boys. She was very supportive and took most of the child-rearing load while I was writing my PhD and furthering my career. I would not have achieved what I have in my career without her.

I managed the PhD in record time, and it led me to the University of Chicago, where I met medical geneticist Albert Dorfman. Dorfman said, ‘Hopwood come with me and I’ll take you to the real world’. The real world was a family in a Hospital clinic, with a child dying of a lysosomal disease.

"One father said, after we began to treat his son, ‘Before we could get him into therapeutic trials we were looking for carers for our son, but now we are looking for careers for our son’."

I saw what was happening emotionally within the family – it was one of those moments when you realise you have a chance to do something. That was 1972 and I’ve been working in the area of genetic disorders ever since.

Children with Lysosomal Storage Disorders (LSD), develop normally until one to three years of age. Then they generally regress in both development of body and mind. Diseases such as Hurler Syndrome, Hunter Syndrome and Sanfilippo Syndrome describe the clinical presentation of these rare conditions.

After some time in Sweden researching diagnostics, I returned to Australia in 1976 to set up a national service for the diagnosis of LSD in Adelaide under Director Dr Tony Pollard, in the Department of Chemical Pathology at the then Adelaide Children’s Hospital.  After years of research, we started clinical trials in 2001 for LSD patients. A series of drug treatments were approved by the Federal Drug Authority in the US in 2005 and 2006 for two different LSD types, and these are now used internationally to treat thousands of patients.

In our research we found a number of genes that code the missing products that makes  children unwell. We then used the normal genes to manufacture the missing compounds. We purify each protein and then inject it into patients throughout their life. The treatment means they can survive normally.

If we identify the disorder early enough, we can begin therapy and the child can have a reasonable life. There is great satisfaction for me but enormous benefit for the family.

One father said, after we began to treat his son, ‘Before we could get him into therapeutic trials we were looking for carers for our son, but now we are looking for careers for our son’. The team I work with has made all of this possible. It is the science that makes a difference.

We are now researching disorders that affect millions – dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease – conditions that we can look forward to doing something about."