Renowned cell scientist Professor Michael Berridge to receive higher doctorate

Distinguished scientist Professor Michael Berridge, whose research career covers fields from plant biology to cancer metabolism, will be awarded a Doctor of Science from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington at its December graduation.

Professor Michael Berridge
Distinguished scientist Professor Michael Berridge is to be awarded a Doctor of Science from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

This higher doctorate recognises over 45 years of ground-breaking research by Professor Berridge, an independent researcher who began at Victoria University of Wellington and Wellington Hospital. He is currently based at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, in Wellington.

“With a career spanning decades, Professor Berridge’s outstanding record of research excellence has helped put New Zealand’s scientific research on the international stage,” says Chancellor John Allen.

“His findings have challenged the conventional models of molecular biology and made a significant contribution to the understanding of cellular processes underpinning disease development.”

Professor Berridge graduated from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1967, a Master of Science in 1969, and a PhD in plant cell growth in 1971. He undertook postdoctoral research at Purdue University in the United States, and was a staff scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research in the United Kingdom.

He returned to New Zealand in 1976 and established the Cancer Cell and Molecular Biology Research Group as part of the Wellington Cancer and Medical Research Institute, now known as the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.

In 2015, he was one of the lead researchers involved in the ground-breaking discovery that mitochondria (the structures in cells that provide the body with most of its energy) can transfer from normal healthy cells to cancerous cells that lacks their own functioning mitochondria. It was found that this may be a mechanism used by tumours to grow.

Professor Berridge says this discovery―along with earlier work on blood-forming stem cells and an international collaboration with a post-doctoral colleague who had cloned the red blood cell hormone, erythropoietin―have been career highlights.

“These discoveries have generated new knowledge, which has impacted medical practice and affected human lives. In addition, new cellular and genetic technologies we used hastened uptake by hospitals.”

Professor Berridge says testing new ideas that challenge existing dogma has been a key feature of his work.

He is currently collaborating with Victoria University of Wellington researchers to see whether changes in the expression of mitochondrial and nuclear genes that encode mitochondrial respiratory complexes can be used as an early marker of neurodegenerative diseases, with the possibility of applying this to other disorders. This work may help create tests to diagnose these conditions at an early stage where treatment is likely to be more effective.

“Our research has relevance in many fields of health sciences, from cancer biology and immunology, to endocrinology and neurobiology. We look forward to seeing how it can apply to neurodegenerative diseases and regenerative medicine in the future,” he says.

His other projects include investigating whether genes that encode mitochondrial respiratory complex components are essential for cancer cells to spread from one part of the body to another.

Professor Berridge received the 2016 Health Research Council of New Zealand’s Liley Medal for outstanding contributions to health and medical science. In 2021, he was awarded the Shorland Medal by the New Zealand Association of Scientists recognising his research had resulted in significant benefits to society.

He has written more than 140 peer-reviewed journal and book chapter articles and contributed to more than 170 scientific reports, publications, and published abstracts. His work has been cited internationally more than 11,800 times. Professor Berridge was an elected member of the council of the New Zealand Association of Scientists for 30 years and is a member of the editorial board of New Zealand Science Review.