04/02/2009 - 22:00

PROFILE : Simon Mallal -Healthy challenge for Mallal

04/02/2009 - 22:00


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The work of a Perth immunogenetics expert could improve the lives of millions.

PROFILE : Simon Mallal -Healthy challenge for Mallal

The work of a Perth immunogenetics expert could improve the lives of millions.

BE it striding the corridors at Royal Perth Hospital or working the room at a corporate function, Simon Mallal seems to be in his element.

In fact, the HIV/Aids researcher and Murdoch University immunogenetics expert is so adept at the latter he has managed to attract more than $20 million of direct, public and private research funds into Western Australia.

Contacts at GlaxoSmithKline and Beckman Coulter are to be found in his address book, as are The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The National Institute of Health (USA) and National Health and Medical Council.

And Professor Mallal was recently awarded $2.3 million by the state government to build a state-of-the-art research facility in conjunction with Murdoch University, which will allow his team to continue its research into finding a cure for the virus.

Professor Mallal believes there are a number of synergies between the corporate world and medical research.

"Medical research, like business, is driven by the needs of the time," he says. "It all starts with the client across the table.

"I began research into the HIV virus as soon as I graduated [in the mid-1980s] because this is when the disease was spreading and there was an outcry for help."

When the world first became aware of HIV/Aids, diagnosis meant certain death. The disease was considered incurable and panic gripped communities around the world.

Professor Mallal says he and his colleagues received plenty of help from industry and the community.

"Perth Royal Hospital was visionary in organising tri-monthly tests for the gay male population. At the time, even admitting you are gay was seen as a social challenge," he says.

"Perth was also the site where the HIV virus was first shown to affect human tissue pictorially. Then we needed a way to unite the data records we were keeping for HIV patients across testing sites. A contact [from another institution] approached us with a solution, from which the universally used local area network was born. Everything was collaborative."

Universal access to medical care, communal concern for maintaining a healthy population, and Perth's relatively small population combined to facilitate monitoring and control of the disease, according to Professor Mallal.

And with an issue of such global importance, there are plenty of suits to shake hands with.

"If you publish a research paper in an international magazine, this suggests it is an issue of international importance," he says.

"You may be asked to speak at plenary talks and conferences, attended by leading experts and managers from around the world. If the issue engages them, it seems you don't have to call them - they will call you.

"Like medicine, business responds to contemporary problems. [People's] belief that there is disinterest in humanitarian issues among top corporate circles is cynical."

Moreover, containing disease is incredibly cost-effective, saving the government millions in treatments, supplying a healthy workforce to business and industry sectors, and feeding growth of pharmaceuticals, science, research and technology.

For Professor Mallal, research advances made in the laboratory are complemented by the personal satisfaction his work brings. He has just returned from an immunology drug presentation in Washington, which he says provided a great occasion to celebrate collaborative research, progress and development.

"Four days of travel for one night at the place, but it was lovely to be there," he says.

"The snow and the excitement about President Obama.

"The great thing about working on an issue like this is that everybody is on the same side. It is inspiring to know you are one of thousands of people all moving in the same direction.

"When research was starting, doctors would take the blood and test themselves, with infection a real danger."

Gambling with HIV is not a common occupational hazard, however, and Professor Mallal says much of this early work was a question of personal choice.

"How do you tell your partner, 'I stung myself today. It's possible I have Aids'? Then there are three months of waiting until results come back."

Finding a cure is one part of the equation, he says; implementing it could prove equally challenging, particularly in developing countries where the virus is most prevalent.

"In Africa, in Asia, HIV is more present than ever and this is our problem. If we don't help the third world, the disease will only come around. Change can't happen on an individual, communal, or even national level. We have to change the world."


What is your business mantra?

Do the right thing for those in need and the rewards will take care of themselves.

Who inspires you?

My wife; she is passionate about global and local health issues, an accomplished physician and scientist and a beautiful person.

How do you handle the work/life balance?

One can never feel in control of these competing pressures. Learning to say no quickly and graciously to what is not possible and quarantine home time. A third time/third place activity such as the gym helps.

What is the most disheartening aspect of your work?

The patients who died because we couldn't get new treatments to them sooner.

What is your first thought every morning?

See the answer to the second question.

What keeps you focused?

Infectious diseases will always be the greatest threat to our existence - we urgently need new man-made solutions for the infectious disease challenges created by globalisation.

What would you be doing if Aids had not developed?

I'd be working to find new treatments vaccines and preventative strategies for other existing and emerging infections.

Your hobbies?

Learning and discovery. I am embarrassed to admit I cannot delineate between work and hobbies.

What is your other dream job?

Professional golfer. A golf pro once told me I had the perfect temperament for the game. It would have been a nice plan if I had any appreciable talent. Luckily there is always something else that we can be good at.


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