19/08/2010 - 00:00

Research passion in the blood

19/08/2010 - 00:00


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Professor Ralph Martins has dedicated his life to finding a test and cure for Alzheimer’s.

A 16-HOUR workday is not unusual for WA Australian of the Year 2010 Professor Ralph Martins; in fact any less than that and he may be tempted to call it a half day.

Professor Martins has devoted much of his working life to finding a diagnosis and treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease through his work as director of research at The McCusker Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease Research.

He has a passion for finding the cause of diseases, a result of witnessing his mother manage diabetes when he was growing up.

“Kids do crazy things; they want to do something for their parents and I wanted to cure my mum of diabetes.

"A very childish thing at the time but when I got older that was my interest,” Professor Martins says.

And while childhood dreams rarely are realised, Professor Martins went on to study the molecular bases of disease through his biochemistry studies.

Still following his childhood dream of curing his mother, he studied the impact of insulin on diabetes at the University of Western Australia.

But the direction of his research interests changed not long after when, as a newlywed, his father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Wanting to help alleviate his father-in-law’s suffering, Professor Martins took a six-month job with renowned medical scientist Professor Colin Masters.

“I got sucked in I guess; I got so embedded and interested and I just wanted to get to the bottom of it,” he says.

‘‘Now I have spent the past 26 years working on it and I am still determined to move forward, I have a passion for it, much to my wife’s dismay.”

Professor Martins acknowledges the demands of his career have often come at the expense of his personal life.

“It is very expensive in time and commitment, there is sacrifice to others, you tend to neglect them to be able to do what we are doing,” he says.

“Weekends I slow down, it is probably something like eight hours on Saturdays and Sundays. I go to bed very late and I get up very early.

“That is a price that sometimes you wonder about, well I don’t wonder, I feel bad about it. Particularly my wife, I think I am the luckiest man in the world; she is so strong, so supportive, understanding most of the time and [has] held the family together.”

Professor Martins was instrumental in the research into live-diagnostic capabilities and it was he and Professor Masters who undertook the foundational research into the Amyloid protein, considered to play a determining role in the development of Alzheimer’s.

“In little old Perth in 1984, that major breakthrough happened. It revolutionised the way people think about Alzheimer’s today,” Professor Martins says.

He took his family with him to Melbourne in 1988 to continue research with Professor Masters, returning to Perth a year later.

He had a short stint working at Hollywood Hospital, run by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and then set about starting an Alzheimer’s research centre in WA.

“I came back to a lab at Hollywood Hospital, it was a workshop, there was no lab there,” he says. ‘‘My wife thought I was crazy, she felt sorry for me, she saw me there with an empty room. I found one little pipette and a tube and she wondered how I was ever going to do anything with this [lack of equipment].’’

“The amazing thing was the Department of Veterans’ Affairs was so supportive, to this day like the McCuskers, Hollywood Hospital has been a major supporter of ours.”

Professor Martins worked on a small budget, starting his Perth clinic with just $100,000 while at the same time his counterparts were starting research clinics in the US with several million dollars in funding.

“People in Melbourne said to me, ‘why are you bothering, we can do it all here, there is no hope for you guys’. But you have to believe in yourself, you have got to push it and now we are leading the field in Alzheimer’s,” he says.

Many years and many thousands of hours later, Professor Martins believes he is close to a major breakthrough.

Currently, the only way to diagnose Alzheimer’s is by eliminating other diseases or dissecting the brain post-mortem.

He says an easily accessible blood test is within reach, maybe within the next five years.

“A blood test was considered to be pie in the sky and they are getting very close to it. Diagnosing Alzheimer’s during life is now becoming a reality.”

What has been your biggest career challenge?

Funding. Lack of funding and resources has been the challenge.

Are you worried about getting Alzheimer’s yourself?

I don’t have time to think about it.

What do you do to prevent Alzheimer’s?

I give lots of lectures about antioxidants, physical activity, diet, and my wife says I don’t practice what I preach. I am going to start; lifestyle is very important.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

I would love to see something put into place where we can alleviate suffering. The thing that breaks my heart is these young people getting Alzheimer’s in their 20s or 30s. That would be the greatest joy, for me to see not in my career but in my lifetime, that we have halted it.

What would you like to achieve in your career?

I would like to leave a legacy of brilliant young scientists that would take on the fight where I leave off and to ensure a career path is made for them. When Alzheimer’s comes to and end, they will tackle other diseases.

When was your last holiday?

I am getting my second lot of long-service leave. My wife and my youngest daughter and I are going overseas on a real holiday. We are going to Italy, then we are going to Israel and then Scotland for 10 days with our second daughter.



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