Professor Robert (Bob) Millar is the Director of the Centre for Endocrinology at the University of Pretoria. He is also a Research Fellow at the Universities of Cape Town and Edinburgh and Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews.
Bob was born in South Africa and grew up in Zimbabwe. He completed a Bachelor of Science Honours degree and an MSc (University of London) and a PhD at the University of Liverpool. He joined the University of Cape Town in the mid-1970s, securing appointments as Director of the Endocrine Laboratory in the Department of Medicine at UCT in 1984 and as Assistant Dean for Research in the Faculty of Medicine from 1993 to 1998. In 1998 Millar was recruited by the University of Edinburgh to direct the UK Medical Research Council’s Human Reproductive Sciences Unit focusing on female and male reproductive pathologies, infertility, contraception and hormone replacement therapy, and he held this post until 2011.
He also founded the reproductive health company, Ardana Biosciences, which raised £73 million, listed on the LSE, took three drugs into the market and three others to phase 2. After completing two terms at Edinburgh, Professor Millar returned to South Africa as Director of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, with a secondary position of Director of the UCT/MRC Receptor Biology Group. In 2016 he established a Centre for Neuroendocrinology in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria. Millar received an A-rating from the NRF in 1990 and re-ratings at this level in subsequent years and his contributions to science have been widely recognised. Amongst other awards, he has received the Wellcome gold medal (1989), Bargmann-Scharrer laureate (1997), Geoffrey Harris laureate (2006), John F Herschel gold medal (2016, the highest award of the Royal Society of South Africa), the South African Medical Research Council’s platinum medal (2016), the NSTF/Billiton lifetime achievement award as well as awards for life time contributions to the Society for Endocrinology and Diabetes of Southern Africa. He is a Fellow of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and South Africa and a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and is currently President of the International Neuroendocrine Federation. Professor Millar, who is broadly qualified and technically well-equipped in a number of fields, has had a particular fascination with endocrine biomedical research for many years and he identified the chemical structure of the fourth hypothalamic hormone to be discovered (the first three being isolated by Guillemin and Schally who received the Nobel Prize for the achievement). With his team, he has been involved in the break-through discovery that function can be restored to inactivating mutations in human G-protein- coupled receptors (GPCRs) using small molecules now called pharmacochaperones. GPCRs are a large family of seven transmembrane domain cell surface receptors that are activated by diverse ligands and are responsible for up to 80% of cell communication. As a result, GPCR signalling regulates most biological processes in humans and GPCRs present very effective drug targets. Currently 30-45% of all marketed therapeutics target GPCR signalling pathways and despite this, most GPCRs have yet to be targeted for therapeutic intervention.
Millar’s research project is directed at a class of cell receptor proteins that can mis-fold during their formation in the producing cells, resulting in many and diverse diseases. He uses pharmacological techniques to rescue those molecules from the mis-fold, focusing on the luteinising hormone receptor (LHR), one of the keystone reproductive hormones. Safety has been established – Millar and his co-investigators are in the fortunate position that the pharmacokinetics, tolerability and safety of the cell-permeant molecule (LHR-Chap), an allosteric agonist of the LHR, have already been investigated and reported in detail – and they are ready to fast-track unique clinical studies which, if successful, will have important implications for precision and personalised treatment of mutations of GPCRs causing conditions such as blindness, diabetes insipidus, diabetes mellitus, obesity, reproductive failure, hot flushes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, adrenal failure and a plethora of other conditions. This provides an unprecedented opportunity for drug development and amelioration of human health. The Oppenheimer Fellowship will greatly facilitate the advance of this focus of Millar’s research.