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Nigel Laing Headshot

Emeritus Professor Nigel Laing AO

UWA Medical School

"Continue to ask questions no-one wants asked. Always question dogma. Be brave. Don’t be afraid to be a lone voice. Do what you want to do. Ask the crucial question, do the crucial experiment. Enjoy finding things out that no-one has ever understood before."

Professor Nigel Laing obtained his PhD from Edinburgh University in 1979. After a one-year postdoc at Oslo University in 1980, he joined UWA in January 1981. From 1976 until 1987, he was a developmental neurobiologist, studying motor neuron and muscle development. He retrained in human molecular genetics at Duke University in 1987-88 and has researched human genetic disease ever since. Apart from identifying human disease genes, his research Group showed that heart actin could be a target for therapy for skeletal muscle actin disease, and, as a medical scientist, he has developed molecular diagnostics for neurogenetic diseases in the WA Department of Health since 1988. He currently co-leads the MRFF project Mackenzie’s Mission, researching how to make reproductive genetic carrier screening free in Australia. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2015, and says "it was an honour beyond imagination when I arrived as an immigrant in 1981".

Most important experiences at UWA

I joined UWA in January 1981: post-doc on a NHMRC Project Grant. There was freedom do what I wanted to do. No layers telling me what I could or couldn’t do, meaning I love the Australian “can do” spirit. Medical research in WA has comparative advantages. You can have total coverage of all patients/families with the diseases you research, meaning I have been able to do things that others elsewhere could not.

Where did you think you would end up, when you began your career?

I started studying medicine expecting to become a clinician, but realising medicine was not for me, leapt sideways into Honours and PhD. From 1976 to 1987, I was a developmental neurobiologist, but in 1987-88 retrained in human molecular genetics. Human genetics is where I belonged. The years since 1987 have been the golden age of human genetics. It has been a privilege to be part of that. My field and goals therefore changed multiple times.

What has been the most interesting aspect of your career?

Finding disease genes has been most interesting. We have identified nearly 40 human disease genes. Each disease gene discovery enables diagnostic testing for patients and families affected by that disease worldwide. Implementing our and others’ research discoveries into diagnostics in PathWest to help Australasian families has been unbelievably rewarding. I try to instill in my team that at the end of everything we do are patients and families.

Where are you planning to go from here?

I remain a Group Leader at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and UWA Centre for Medical Research. I shall continue until expanded reproductive genetic carrier screening is publicly funded in Australia and therefore affordable for all. I lead a MRFF grant running until 2025 researching adult-onset neurodegenerative disorders, using new technologies that enable finding genetic diseases that could not readily be found before.

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