Werther, George AO

  • George Werther OAM

    The Early Years

    George was born in Melbourne as the only child of Holocaust survivor parents, undertaking primary schooling in Launceston, Tasmania, returning to Melbourne at age 11. He attended Melbourne High School and the University of Melbourne. After completing an internship at the Royal Melbourne Hospital he undertook paediatric training at The Royal Children's Hospital (RCH), followed by a diabetes fellowship with David Baum in Oxford, UK, where he obtained an MSc. His and Mary’s second child, Rebecca was born in Oxford, and David Baum was the first person to greet her arrival, as the paediatrician on call!

    On return to Melbourne in 1978 he was mentored by endocrinologist Norman Wettenhall while based at Queen Vic hospital as Senior Tutor in Paediatrics. Over the subsequent two years he divided his time between Queen Vic, RCH and Prince Henry’s Hospital, involved in both paediatric and adult endocrine clinics. Professor Arthur Clark, Chair of Paediatrics at Monash University introduced to him Professor Henry Burger, head of Endocrinology at Prince Henry’s. Prof Burger directed him to Dr Adrian Herington, who was leading basic research studies into the growth factor NSILAs, which subsequently was identified as somatomedin or Insulin-lie Growth Factor (IGF). George joined these research studies, both in the Prince Henry’s lab and in children with Thalassemia Major, managed by Dr Rae Matthews at Queen Vic. This was the beginning of his career in IGF research.

    In 1980 he and his family moved again, this time to Cincinnati in the US, to undertake a two year paediatric endocrine fellowship with Dr Mark Sperling (formerly from RCH). In addition to clinical training he undertook research on regulation of glucose turnover in a dog model. He then spent a year at Stanford University with Drs Ray Hintz and Ron Rosenfeld, working in the lab on basic IGF research.

    On return to RCH in 1983 he joined Garry Warne as Deputy Director of Endocrinology, the first year being rather turbulent as there were pressures to “rationalise” endocrinology between RCH and Monash Medical Centre. Over the next few years he worked with Garry Warne to develop the Endocrine Department, both with respect to the clinical service and its research activities. Key to this was a focus on the fellowship program which attracted trainees in paediatric endocrinology from both Australia and internationally. Dr John Court, who headed the Diabetes Clinic agreed to join the Department in the mid 1980s, to become the Department of Endocrinology and Diabetes. By the mid-1990s the Department was achieving an international reputation for its clinical service, training and research. George became Director of the Department of Endocrinology in 1999, a position he held until 2015.

    Research Activities 

    George’s research has been focussed on two main areas, namely growth and diabetes, with growth hormone and IGFs as a central theme. His clinical research pioneered national trials of growth hormone for various types of short stature as well the first study to demonstrate adverse effects on fertility resulting from high dose oestrogen therapy for tall stature. 

    With support from the RCH Research Foundation he first set up a laboratory at RCH in 1983 and this was expanded and maintained for the next 30+ years with NHMRC and other funding. His initial studies were on the role of insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) in brain development and repair. This led to a series of studies using human neuronal cell lines, further delineating IGF action in nerve cells. Neuroblastoma and other tumour cells lines allowed studies on the role of an IGF binding protein IGFBP-2, which proved to have a key role in regulation of tumour cell growth. A modified version of this protein, engineered by George on a US sabbatical, proved to be a potent inhibitor of tumour growth, with potential therapeutic value.

    Studies on growth hormone actions on the skeletal growth plate and skin provided early evidence for direct growth hormone effects. Human skin cells then became a tool for further investigation of the IGF system in growth regulation in normal and diseased human tissues.

    Dermal Therapeutics Syndicate and Commercialisation 

    In the mid-1990s he commenced studies on the potential role of the IGF system in skin proliferative diseases such as psoriasis. A psoriatic skin explant model was designed in order to investigate this possibility. With NHMRC support an antisense to the IGF-I receptor was developed, blocking IGF action, which indeed reversed the psoriatic phenotype. This proof of concept led to a patent of this potential novel therapy. This in turn led to a collaboration with industry via a government scheme “Syndicated R&D”, whereby the lab team was expanded and formal milestones were achieved toward commercialisation.

    By 2000 the patented work on IGF blockade of psoriasis was taken up by a newly formed biotech company “Antisense Therapeutics Limited” and George became a director of that company which listed on the ASX in 2001. This was the first extended path to commercialisation at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI).

    George has been a member of several Scientific Advisory Committees for biotech companies, as well as an inaugural member of the MCRI Commercialisation committee. He has also served on the Executive of the Australasian Paediatric endocrine Group, the Australian Diabetes Society and on various NHMRC Grant review committees, as well as acting as expert adviser to the Therapeutics and Goods Administration (TGA).

    Centre for Hormone Research and Community Interaction 

    In the mid-1990s George set up the Centre for Hormone Research, a body focussed on the research undertaken in the Department of Endocrinology and in collaboration with groups within MCRI and beyond. This included a Development Board made up of business and parent supporters devoted to raising funds toward research in the Centre. The themes were Diabetes, Growth, Sexual Development and Bone Health, reflecting the research interests of the group leaders in the Department. The Centre board was chaired sequentially by Dr Norman Wettenhall, Mr Barry Novy and David Galbally KC. This was the first such body on the campus, a concept later taken up by the MCRI.

    A particular joy was a long-standing partnership with the Inverloch Diabetes community through Kerrie Beauglehall, the parent of a former patient, who mounted annual fund-raising balls in Inverloch over some 25 years, raising more than $800,000 toward diabetes care and research at RCH.


    George supervised 21 PhD. MD and post-doctoral researchers, as well as several Honours and Masters of Science students. He was involved in attracting and supervising some 40 paediatric endocrine trainees over 35 years, more than half from UK, Europe, Asia and India.

    Honours and Awards

    George was awarded the RCH Chairman’s Medal, the Norman Wettenhall Medal for Excellence in Research and Innovation - by the Australian Paediatric Endocrine Group, the International Award for Scientific Achievement  - by the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology (the only Australian awardee), Distinguished Old Boy – by Melbourne High School, and life memberships of the Endocrine Society of Australia and the Australasian Paediatric Endocrine Group. In June 2020 he was awarded Officer of the Order of Australia.

    Family and Other Activities

    George has been married to Mary for over 50 years. They have two children.  Ben is married to Johanna, both involved in high tech, and living in California with their two daughters. Rebecca is a paediatric allergist and married to Leon. They have three children and live in Melbourne.

    Outside medicine George’s other passion is theatre. For over 30 years George has participated in community theatre, primarily as an actor, but in recent years as a director, while his wife Mary now designs his sets. When he retired from RCH one of his fellows gave him a book on directing for theatre, with the statement that he was switching from one form of directing to another!