Western Australia is so well suited to the role of world-leading medical research jurisdiction that one of the state’s most respected scientists is surprised anybody is ever sick.
University of Western Australia-based gastroenterologist Barry Marshall, who won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for his work on the role of bacteria in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease, said he believed Perth’s climate and natural environment gave it a rare advantage in the globally competitive world of medical research.
“It’s hard to believe there are very many people with illness in Western Australia when you have a day like today,” Professor Marshall told Business News on a typically sunny Perth Autumn day.
“It’s warm and dry, which is perfect and not good for germs.
“People who come here get that feeling that it is healthy and clean, and that’s something that’s just built into the culture here in WA.”
Along with its climate, Professor Marshall said WA’s geographic location provided a significant advantage, particularly for researchers to collaborate in the most populous areas of the world.
“It’s the best location to be in in Australia, because it’s in the same time zone as Asia and China, so it’s very easy for scientific people and people in health and education to move up and down in that time zone without any jetlag,” he said.
“Although two or three hours doesn’t sound very much when you are considering places like the Middle East or Europe or Africa, which is many hours different, even two or three hours is something which makes things a little more difficult to manage.”
Professor Marshall is one of several outstanding individuals at the vanguard of medical research innovation in WA, adding to a long history of achievement in the state.
Other prominent medical leaders from WA include Fiona Wood, famous internationally for developing the world’s first spray-on skin, which rose to prominence in the treatment of victims of the 2002 Bali bombings, and the 2003 Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley, the founding director of the Telethon Kids Institute.
In more recent years, Lions Eye Institute associate professor Angus Turner has helped build on the legacy of WA’s outstanding individuals, delivering specialist outreach services to remote and indigenous communities in far-flung locations across the state.
Professor Marshall said part of the credit for the success of the state’s medical research sector was the substantial support it had received from the state government, as well as the wider medical community.
“By providing enough resources so there is a bit of slack in the system so people who wanted to research can get out of the clinic and find a few hours of library time and learn new technologies in the health system, you then get this beautiful connection between the patients who have got the illnesses and the doctors who are trying to treat them,” Professor Marshall said.
“A place like Perth is just the right size to communicate between the clinical side of the patients down into the fundamental science in the universities.
“In other countries I have seen research institutions that aren’t well connected to the health community.
“But in WA we have this great connection between the patients and the doctors, the scientific people, the health department and the universities.
“The information flows both ways; people can introduce new technologies and straight away someone will be saying ‘Hey, I can use this in my practice’, for example.”
Another driving factor in WA has been the infrastructure support provided by both the state and federal governments.
Starting in 2009 with the construction of Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA subsequently experienced its biggest-ever pipeline of medical development, with more than $3.6 billion invested in new facilities.
Delivered around the time of Fiona Stanley Hospital was a new $360 million hospital in Midland, built to replace the ageing Swan Districts Hospital, and the $122 million Harry Perkins Institute for Medical Research.
The wave of investment was capped off with the development of the $1.2 billion Perth Children’s Hospital, which experienced some issues during construction but is considered one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in Australia.
Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research director Peter Leedman said those investments were now being leveraged by research institutes and universities to drive the next round of innovation.
“There are good things happening currently in WA and the importance of biomedical research is being well and truly understood, which is great,” Professor Leedman told Business News.
“Everything we do in medicine comes as a consequence of great medical research, and the best clinical care is in centres where there is a vibrant, energetic and integrated biomedical research foundation.”
Professor Leedman said one of the more exciting areas of research coming out of WA was in an area he described as ‘omics’ – covering the studies of genomics, phenomics and metabolomics.
Spearheading the WA push into this area of medical science is the Australian National Phenome Centre, which has been established by Murdoch University and promises to drive a new era in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of a range of medical conditions, including cancers, obesity, autism, dementia and type two diabetes.
“The omics area is essentially signatures within the body of both health and disease,” Professor Leedman said.
“You can measure a whole lot of things, and we realised that in addition to taking history from a patient and then doing various radiological investigations and pathology, that you can collect the omic signatures … we hope that they are going to be incredibly instructive in how we diagnose and treat people with disease and how we prevent disease.
“We are developing omics expertise that would be very competitive internationally.
“In some areas we are certainly world class, and the new phenomics centre at the Perkins South precinct at Fiona Stanley Hospital is a world-class centre.
“We have also got world-class people working in genomics at the Perkins and the Telethon Kids Institute and we have a company, Proteomics International, that is doing some pretty powerful things.
“What’s clear to us is that we need to be in the space of generating these signatures and then working out which is the best signature for a particular person at a particular time.
“We don’t know that yet, that’s why the next few years will be exciting while we connect the various signatures in genomics, proteomics and phenomics and apply those to patients, as well as those who are healthy.
“It’s just as important as treating disease; we’ve got to be better at preventing disease.”
Professor Leedman said the Perkins Institute had focused on recruiting a cohort of world-leading researchers to complement the substantial investments in state-of-the art equipment.
“If we invest in it, we have to be really careful that our return on that investment will be firstly knowledge, and lots of new knowledge, but secondly, and most important for the community, it has to be turned into informative choices that people can make to keep themselves healthy,” he said.
“If they are unwell, it has to help get them better as quickly as possible – that’s the return on investment everyone is
“It has to be very clear, preventative strategies, better diagnostics and better treatments.
“That’s what we envisage. It doesn’t happen overnight, these things take time, but there has to be a clear return on investment that the community needs to see, because it is the community that is doing the
Another new development in WA’s medical space is the arrival of MTPConnect, a national industry growth centre established in 2015 under a federal government initiative.
MTPConnect has a mandate to promote medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical advancements across Australia, improving commercialisation and helping researchers and small companies partner and develop new technologies.
The not-for-profit group established a Perth hub midway through last year, drawn by the opportunity to work within a highly regarded research environment.
“There is a good concentration of high-quality, world-class research happening in Western Australia,” MTPConnect chief executive Dan Grant told Business News.
“The other thing is that it’s probably under-recognised. We took the opportunity to realise that by having an office in Perth and by working within the ecosystem; we had the opportunity to build the pie, and not just the WA pie because our mandate is national, (but) to build the
“We’ve had a great time in our first 12 months, there are some really interesting opportunities coming out of WA – the phenomics centre is a great example of new capabilities being built in the state.”
Other notable success stories emerging from WA in recent years, Dr Grant said, included the technology behind Sirtex, the liver cancer treatment specialist that was acquired by a Chinese group last year for $1.9 billion, and Linear Clinical Research, which is considered to be a world leader in the field of clinical trials.
Dr Grant said MTPConnect would continue to work with government and the private sector to ensure WA’s medical research scene would no longer be one that was under-recognised outside of the state’s border.
“Every government likes to talk about jobs and economic impact, and this sector is one that can really have a significant impact on high-paying jobs but also is an important economic driver,” he
“Exports coming out of the sector nationally total somewhere around $6 billion a year, so you’ve got jobs, economic growth, but most importantly you’ve got improved patient outcomes.
“You can’t have those first two if you’re not improving patient outcomes.”