Jeremy Nicholson says WA is the perfect base for radical health-based research. Photo: Murdoch University

Phenome centre to connect the dots

Thursday, 21 February, 2019 - 15:27

WA could be at the forefront of disease prevention worldwide when the Perth-based National Phenome Centre is up and running.

The Perth-based Australian National Phenome Centre has received a $10 million federal injection expected to boost the facility’s capabilities and further develop connections with centres worldwide.

Established in 2018 and based at Murdoch University, the centre will enable researchers to analyse the unique characteristics of an individual’s physical and biochemical traits, or phenome, to better understand and predict the complex genetic, environmental and lifestyle interactions that cause disease.

The Australian National Phenome Centre forms part of a global network of research facilities, including in London and Hong Kong.

ANPC executive director Jeremy Nicholson told Business News the new grant would help establish the centre as a world leader.

“We’ve started the process of construction of the laboratory, so this grant is to add to that,” Professor Nicholson said.

“I’ve come in relatively recently from Imperial College London, where I was head of the department of surgery and cancer – one of the world’s largest clinical departments – and director of the UK National Phenome Centre.

“At the moment we are building the new ANPC laboratory and also personal laboratories, so $10 million has already gone into that, another $7 million for refurbishing the laboratory, and the new $10 million from the federal government will be on top of that.

“So in a relatively short time this has become one of the best-funded laboratories in the world in this field.”

Professor Nicholson expects the ANPC to be producing research by the end of this year.

He said the Australian government had been prompted to heavily invest due to the success of other centres, and the close collaborative relationship the Perth centre would have to these.

“The reason this is very popular as an idea is that it’s to do with the internationalisation of science, and standardisation of approaches,” Professor Nicholson said.

“The idea being if you do a scientific experiment in Perth you will get the same answer as if you do it in London.”

He said the Perth centre would primarily research issues of importance to local demographics, but the information produced would be relevant more generally.

“Politicians and universities like the idea that what they’re doing is part of a much bigger, international plan, because you have much more likelihood of getting significant impact for humanity that way,” Professor Nicholson said.

“Our centre is going to be focused on things that are important for WA, but a lot of those are important internationally too.

“The National Phenome Centre in London is the most advanced in the world, and our aim is to catch up with that.”

Long-term disease studies such as the Busselton Health Study and the Fremantle Diabetes Study were an important benefit to being based in WA, Professor Nicholson said, but this was not the only factor.

“The thing that drew us to Perth was the very positive attitudes that we’ve met, the strong connections between universities and the strong connections between universities and government,” he said.

“The other thing is that the population size is actually very good for being able to implement personalised healthcare practically.

“If you look at the UK, the cost of doing personalised healthcare is astronomical.

“WA also has some of the best digital health records in the world, so the opportunity to translate the technology to population benefits in WA is better than some of the best medical schools in London.”

Professor Nicholson also noted the Australian community was generally very health conscious, meaning the potential to implement change was high.

From a business perspective, he projected that farmers and nutritional companies would greatly benefit from the APRC’s focus on personalised nutrition, an outcome that may also attract pharmaceutical investments to the state.

Professor Nicholson said that, based on the track record of phenome centres, Perth could soon be known as the international base for disease prevention advancements.

“You’ve got the most advanced hospital in the Southern Hemisphere [Fiona Stanley] next to one of the world’s most advanced laboratories,” he said.

“That is an absolute recipe for new discovery and fantastic science.

“We aspire to have a world impact in healthcare and disease prevention within the next couple of years, and that’s facilitated by the huge resources that have been given to us.”