Genomics to help close the gap in respiratory health 

Wednesday, 14 Jun 2017

Can you describe the aim of this new research in 10 words?

To improve treatment and prevention strategies for respiratory disease

What have you discovered in this area so far?

Chronic respiratory disease is complex, and the big questions need a cross-disciplinary approach which my team achieves using genomics, transcriptomics, microbiomics, immunology, microbiology, traditional medicinal plants, and clinical chemistry within a program of antibiotic and vaccine intervention trials.

This new research targeting genomics of the primary pathogen in chronic lung disease – nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi) – has so far discovered the first accurate diagnostic for NTHi, a lineage associated with chronic lung disease, and novel antibiotic resistance determinants.

This work forms the foundation for developing rapid diagnostics to improve clinical care and antibiotic stewardship, and using omic technologies to target mechanisms of pathogenesis.

What aspect of this research excites you the most?

Currently doctors need to make a best guess when treating exacerbations of chronic lung disease, and a hospital study showed that antibiotic prescriptions are inappropriate nearly half the time.

This will only get worse as rates of antibiotic resistance rise. Lab results currently take 2-3 days using standard culture methods. Having rapid diagnostics will allow doctors to make same-day informed decisions, and reduce the high levels inappropriate antibiotic use and improve care of patients with chronic lung diseases.

What’s your Holy Grail – the one thing you’d like to achieve in your research career?

We’re all striving for health equity. In doing so, we push at many fronts – where health research intersects with clinical care, policy, education, justice and so on.

In my research career, I would like to have made an impact on all these fronts. In the Territory, we are very good at collaboration and I would like to see the “Developing the North” initiative have an ongoing focus on health research standing beside economic development.

What is your biggest research hurdle?

Funding, lack of security for me and my team, and only 24 hours in a day! So many knowledge gaps, so many questions, and so little time and funding.

When you plan your research program you have to create a mindset like you’ve got years to achieve it (not just a funding-dependent one-year contract), otherwise you focus only on short-term projects, and innovative, high-risk projects can fall by the wayside.

How long before this work impacts patient care?

I am very fortunate to be able to work all the way along the research timeline – from basic science, through to clinical trials, and research translation. This keeps all our work targeted to clinically relevant outcomes and keeps us on track asking the right questions.

For this new research, additional funding to develop rapid tests for antibiotic resistance will see this work influencing patient care in about three years’ time.

Who has inspired you and why?

I’ve been very fortunate to have passionate and committed people inspiring me at every stage of my career at Menzies. The first who comes to mind is Professor John Mathews who as the Menzies founding director taught us collaboration over competition.

He would read to us the great science philosophers – I try hard to live up to his teachings, and to be a thoughtful researcher. Also Professors Peter Morris and Amanda Leach with whom I’ve researched since the early 90’s.

What other interests help create work-life balance for you?

I love to travel with my family. We have a tradition of a surprise holiday for each milestone birthday year so as next year is my 50th, I can’t wait to see where they take me (I’ve requested the Trans-Siberian).

Otherwise with my son I love to mountain bike and take our three dogs on long walks at the beach and in the bush.  We also hike – last year Mt Rainier in Washington State was the highlight.

Can you nominate a book that influenced you & why?

There is one book that sits permanently on my bedside table. When I was young and ignorant I found myself arguing with a nun about an inherent link between language and complex thought.

She won the argument with her spare copy of Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension. That book is 50 years old now, the spine has disintegrated, and it’s really a stack of pages, but it has served as a constant reminder for me to always question my assumptions. This practice has been invaluable in my research and in life.

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