Reliving the journey from then to now

From top, Julie Byles, Stephen Ackland, Roger Scott, Roger Smith, Peter Gibson.
From top, Julie Byles, Stephen Ackland, Roger Scott, Roger Smith, Peter Gibson.

Julie Byles

Public Health

HMRI grew out of the ashes of BHP and is leading the city into an exciting future as an intellectual centre.

Before we had HMRI, we had some of everything you need to make HMRI.

We had world class researchers who were leaders in their fields, we had a health service with a long reputation for innovation in caring for its people, we had an engaged and supportive community, and we had strong collaborations between these partners.

The HMRI Building is a physical manifestation of this partnership, but the real construction is more than bricks and mortar – its people, and ideas, and actions.

HMRI was able to use these building blocks to create a large and solid institute.

The HMRI Building is a physical manifestation of this partnership, but the real construction is more than bricks and mortar – its people, and ideas, and actions.

What we have now is the capacity to move way beyond small joint projects, translating our research into programs to improve the health of our region, and beyond.

We also have researchers with powerful expertise in epidemiology, statistics, health services research and economics – with the abilities to harness 21st century “big data” to improve population health.

Working with the community, and the health service, researchers bring their skills to the co-development and evaluation of ways to identify and modify health risks.

Our work is important to protect people from infectious disease, and to promote habits and environments that support health and prevent chronic disease - including good nutrition and physical activity for children and adults.

In HMRI we also work together to improve care for people with existing conditions, finding better ways for people to use health care and to improve care outcomes, and to create better health policy that is both effective and equitable.

As a clinical epidemiologist, Professor Byles’ interests are in risk determination, health assessment, health care use, measurement of health outcomes, and other health care evaluation. 

Stephen Ackland  

Cancer 

The HMRI Cancer Research Program was established in 1999 and was the first attempt to encourage translational research in oncology in Newcastle, by linking lab researchers with clinical researchers. 

There were several separate research teams in both camps, based at David Madison Building, Calvary Mater Newcastle (CMN) and University of Newcastle (UON) campuses, including cancer biology, melanoma research, and clinical trials in various specialties (medical, radiation and surgical onc (breast cancer trials) and melanoma).

There was little collaboration between clinical and laboratory research and so capacity for research translation was limited.

In the last 20 years, the HMRI Cancer Research Program has undergone a metamorphosis to become one of the outstanding Translational Cancer Research Centres in NSW.

HMRI Cancer Research Program is now called the Hunter Cancer Research Alliance (www.hcra.com.au), incorporating the UON Priority Research Centre in Cancer Research Innovation and Translation, and the Clinical Cancer Research Network (www.hcra.com.au/our-research/clinical-cancer-research-network), a collaboration of 13 clinical trial units over six sites in the Hunter, including Tamworth Hospital and two local private hospitals.

There is now much more collaboration between researchers across the translational spectrum from laboratory to clinic and public health.

The development of the Hunter Cancer Biobank (16,000 tissue specimens) including the Mark Hughes Foundation Brain Cancer Biobank has provided a large collection of validated and well-annotated, clinically derived tissues for laboratory and translational studies.

The advent of HMRI and HCRA has created more (and modern) facilities, learning opportunities, and career prospects for young researchers, more space for meetings, and improved laboratory facilities.

HMRI has provided valuable research grants and other support to kick-start or enhance many cancer research projects allowing leveraging to gain prestigious, nationally-competitive larger grants. In 2016, HCRA members produced 372 scientific papers, and were awarded $13.5million in local, state and national competitive grants.

We have run three international conferences, and now run a yearly Hunter Cancer Research Symposium showcasing local researchers outputs, with proceedings published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Clinical Oncology.

HCRA are looking forward to the next phase of HMRI development, with a new building to house most cancer researchers on one site to improve collaboration and integration. This will further improve our research output, international competitiveness and attractiveness to researchers and clinicians.

Personally, my passion in clinical research and anticancer drug pharmacology has continued, with incremental improvements in the medical oncology research laboratory at CMN, continued rewarding collaborations with UON Dept of Chemistry in identifying and developing new anticancer drugs, and also with HMRI Depts of Genetics and Pharmacology in pharmacogenomics.

This area is set to explode in the next few years as genomic sequencing becomes cheaper and more reliable. I feel we are on the cusp of developing truly personalised cancer therapy to improve control rates for patients and decrease side effects of chemotherapy.

Rodney J Scott

Information Based Medicine

In 1998 a “Virtual Institute” that comprised the top researchers within Newcastle and the Hunter was promoted and the concept born, the Hunter Medical Research Institute came into existence. 

It was a special relationship between the University of Newcastle, the Hunter New England Health Service and the Hunter Community. 

Initially, research laboratories were located in the old Hunter Area Pathology Service site within the John Hunter Hospital. Never an ideal location for laboratories, it was a rabbit warren but out of it came some highly competitive work. 

Space limitations were significant and it was realised early on that new medical research space was required. 

Within 10 years of its existence plans were firmly in place to build the current state-of-the-art facility which was completed about five years ago. With the opening of the HMRI Building it was thought that the concept of a virtual institute would disappear. 

Contrary to this view, it remains and as such is a unique attribute to the people of the Hunter who have supported the research activities of HMRI relentlessly, over the past 20 years. 

The emergence of HMRI is a testament to all the researchers who have worked tirelessly to place HMRI on the Australian and international research scene demonstrating that excellence is not bound by major city boundaries.  

Roger Smith

Pregnancy & Reproduction

One of the exciting things  research Roger Smith notes about HMRI can be summed up in an experience he had when he first arrived in Newcastle in 1981.

“I walked into a local milk bar, and there was a box on the counter for donations for medical research in Sydney,” he recalled.

“It highlighted the options you had back then as a donor.

“With the setting up of HMRI all that has changed.

“I recently attended  a dinner in Sydney with 540  people who were raising money for medical research in Newcastle.

“It captures what’s has happened in the way HMRI has transformed research in the  region, state and country.

“We now have a major medical research centre outside of a captial city.”

Mr Smith noted the idea might seem strange to Australians, but is quite normal overseas.

“Look at Yale, it’s not in a capital city.  Boston is Boston, not New York. Cambridge is not a major city but is still a world renowned university.

“In Europe there are many famous academic universities in smaller cities.

“It’s one of the visions of HMRI to help Newcastle become an academic city.

“HMRI grew out of the ashes of BHP and is leading the city into an exciting future as an intellectual centre.”

Peter Gibson

Viruses, Infections/Immunity, Vaccines & Asthma

Professor Gibson’s  “before and after HMRI” vignettes  highlight  changes he’s noted over the last 20 years.

BEFORE HMRI:Australia was in the midst of an asthma epidemic. I would read about young people dying from asthma every other month.

AFTER HMRI: Death from asthma, especially in young people, is now rare.

BEFORE HMRI: My patients with severe asthma used to tell me, ’Doctor, I think your treatment is making me fat!’

AFTER HMRI: Now they say, ‘I’ve got my life back.”  This is because of the personalised approach we have developed and the advances in asthma therapies.

BEFORE HMRI: There were no female professors at the University of Newcastle addressing lung problems.

AFTER HMRI: There are three outstanding female professors located at HMRI who are studying asthma and airway diseases.

BEFORE HMRI: There was myself and a skilled technical officer testing and doing research into airway inflammation and asthma.

AFTER HMRI: There are 60 or more dedicated scientists looking at many different facets of lung disease. Newcastle and HMRI is known as an international centre of excellence for asthma and lung research.

BEFORE HMRI: We approached asthma treatment as though everyone was the same.

AFTER HMRI: We can now test and individualise treatment.

BEFORE HMRI: Research was seen as a nuisance in the hospital environment, something that got in the way of patient care,

AFTER HMRI: Clinical research is seen as a way to give better patient care, as an essential part of the hospital landscape, and we now know that patients who participate in clinical trials derive significant benefits simply form participation alone.

BEFORE HMRI: Research was disconnected from the Hunter community. A relative blind spot.

AFTER HMRI: The generosity of the people in the Hunter is seen every day when I walk into the HMRI Building, and from the many positive outcomes patients now experience from research advances.