30/04/2009 - 00:00

Expansion of health project pilot acros WA good medicine for the state

30/04/2009 - 00:00

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Mark Pownall reports on Lyle Palmer’s vision to place WA at the forefront of medical research.

Expansion of health project pilot acros WA good medicine for the state

A SMALL and isolated population is not typically a great starting point for medical advances, but Western Australia could be the beneficiary from bucking this trend, three times over.

Perhaps because of its extraordinary natural-resources-driven wealth, the state already punches above its weight in medical research. We are blessed with leading lights such as Professor Fiona Stanley, Dr Fiona Wood, Nobel laureates Professor Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren, all of whom have drawn attention to WA's medical excellence.

Perhaps lesser known are the endeavours of Dr Kevin Cullen who, in 1966, started the Busselton Health Study one of the longest running epidemiological research programs in the world.

It is from this latter achievement that one of the state's biggest opportunities lay.

Lured back to Perth in 2003 to become the foundation chair in Genetic Epidemiology at the University of Western Australia, Professor Lyle Palmer is leading a visionary project to expand the work of the Busselton study, initially to Joondalup and ultimately statewide.

A leading scientist in this rapidly developing field, Professor Palmer left the medical and biotechnology centre of the world, the north east of the United States, in particular Boston and Harvard University, where he worked, to take on this new role.

He is now the operational head of a project that could deliver three significant and lasting benefits to WA.

Firstly, a comprehensive ongoing study of the state's population would increase the potential for early health intervention in individual cases, as well as better equip WA's medical sector to efficiently deliver services to the population.

Secondly, such a pool of data would draw the very brightest of medical brains to our shores to study and interrogate this rich vein of information - boosting the prestige, status and pulling power of our existing academic structures.

Finally, and assuming success in the form of medical discoveries from dealing with the data, there is the potential for WA to become an incubator of businesses that flourish because regional structures, culture and understanding support their growth - much as Silicon Valley has become the hub of technological development.

This is a goldmine which Professor Palmer has suggested could cost $100 million to fully develop across the state, starting with the Joondalup project, which is several years down that track, as a pilot version of a state-wide concept.

Joondalup owes its creation to the success of the Busselton Health Study, which has surveyed and sampled more than 16, 000 people to create a database of information going back in time longer than almost any similar project, giving WA a rare position in medical research that is difficult to displace.

Perhaps, to lay people, the information contained could be compared to the importance of drilled ice cores in efforts to understand climate change - allowing researchers to test theories against data and samples preserved from the past.

The Joondalup Family Health Study concept is a contemporary, metropolitan version of the Busselton study and also borrows from other projects around the world, including WA's Health-in-Men Study and the Raine Cohort Study.

A consortium of medical researchers from the several research organisations, universities and hospitals has been driving the project, until recently under the auspices of the WA Institute of Medical Research; though that has changed.

But there have been frustrations which have slowed the project, especially differences between partners on intellectual property ownership.

Ultimately, the Joondalup study will seek to collect extensive data from up to 80,000 volunteers every three years, with a strong focus on families.

Subjects of the study will take part on a battery of tests, including the provision of blood samples which will be stored and handled in ways that overcome the sensitive nature of this material in light of extraordinary progress in genetic testing.

According to its proponents, the study aims to investigate the complex combination of environmental, lifestyle and genetic components that affect the risk of common conditions such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes in both adults and children.

Data regarding lifestyle and diet, together with measuring lung function, cardiovascular function, immune function, eye disease, hearing loss, mental health, and much more will be collected.

"We essentially have 30 years' worth of the most complete medical research data, which helps to make Western Australia a world leader in epidemiological research," Professor Palmer told WA Business News in a past interview.

"My job is to build on that and make it the best in the world in genetic research.

"We are heading towards a WA genome project which will involve going to everyone in WA and asking for a research sample and linking that to the medical research data we have.

"If we could do that, we could have a huge resource. It would be like the Busselton Population Study, which is recognised around the world, on a much larger scale."

Of course, all this takes money and Professor Palmer will need to be as adept at raising funds as some of his very successful predecessors, such as Professor Stanley and WAIMR director Professor Peter Klinken.

If claims from early last year are delivered on, the Joondalup study already has significant financial commitments.

Last year, Professor Palmer said the Joondalup study had received commitments of support from IBM and Cerner International worth $25 million.

It is perhaps fitting that the scientist, who won the WA Business News 40under40 First Amongst Equals Award in 2005, has a background that includes venture capitalism.

Professor Palmer's career on the research side of the ledger is extraordinary enough.

He is an internationally recognised as an expert in the genetics of complex respiratory diseases, and at 37 years of age he was the youngest scientist to be appointed to a chair at the medical school as the foundation chair in Genetic Epidemiology at the University of Western Australia in 2003.

Professor Palmer has also taught at prestigious institutions around the world, including Harvard and Oxford.

While at Harvard, Professor Palmer was jointly responsible for creating a new national genomic resource centre in heart, lung and blood disease as well as founding a biotechnology consultancy, Triaj, to provide high-level advice and due diligence to venture capital and industry groups.

Professor Palmer concluded that, in biotechnology, most of the expertise resided in academia rather than industry, in contrast to IT or other high-tech enterprises.

Such a background reveals a rare blend of research, business and entrepreneurial skills for the man at the helm of such an important WA project.

 

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