Professor Michael Alpers has dedicated his life to the understanding of the mysterious fatal neurological disease kuru. As a new medical graduate, Adelaide-born Alpers travelled to the Okapa patrol post in Papua New Guinea in 1961 to start work as a research doctor with the Department of Public Health. His move was prompted by his fascination with kuru, about which he had read a great deal as a student.
The degenerative prion disease was endemic to the Fore people, a small cultural group from the Eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. Alpers lived among the Fore people, who lived a deeply traditional lifestyle, for years, conducting autopsies on the recently deceased and researching the epidemiology of the disease. He collected stories and learned as much as he could about the Fore people and their culture, seeking anything that might lead to a greater understanding of kuru.
His work on kuru has been fundamental to our understanding of one of the most confounding modern prion diseases – bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease, which results in variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Alpers’ collaborative studies on the incubation period and the genetics of kuru now instruct scientists on how the epidemic of variant CJD may continue to evolve in populations where it is incubating, particularly in the UK.
In his current role at Curtin University of Technology, Alpers remains strongly committed to community health and health equity He is a member or fellow of 30 professional societies and associations, including the Royal Society and the Third World Academy of Sciences.
1961: Took on role as research doctor with the Department of Public Health in Papua New Guinea
1977:Became Director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, working with five expatriate and five local staff
2005: Appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to medical science and to health and development in Papua New Guinea
2008: Appointed a Companion of the Papua New Guinean Order of the Star of Melanesia
2010: World premiere of the film Kuru: The science and the sorcery
Biography of Michael Alpers
The Royal Society
ABC Science, The Lab, News in Science ‘Genes suggest cannibalism common in human past’, 11 April 2003, ABC TV Catalyst, ‘Cannibals’, September 2003,
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, Theme issue: ‘The end of kuru: 50 years of research into an extraordinary disease’ (2008), compiled by John Collinge and Michael Alpers,
Michael Alpers and John Collinge, ‘Reminiscences and reflections on kuru, personal and scientific’ (2008), in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences
Michael Alpers, ‘The epidemiology of kuru: monitoring the epidemic from its peak to its end’ (2008), in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, Michael Alpers, ‘The epidemiology of kuru in the period 1987 to 1995′ (2005), in Communicable Diseases Intelligence