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Opinion: Research that can change local lives

Wednesday, 21 April 2021


Written by Adrian Costa Clinical Trials Centre director Paul Lightfoot Paul_Lightfoot-1550817small.jpg

Medical research saves and transforms lives. Many of the advances in healthcare, which we all enjoy, are based on the background research to test new treatments. From penicillin to COVID-19 vaccines, clinical trials have played a pivotal role in the advance of medical care.

Barwon Health has a long history of fostering medical research and running clinical trials. This is now moving to the next level with the advent of the Adrian Costa Clinical Trials Centre, made possible by a generous donation from the Costa family.  Prior to becoming the centre’s inaugural director, I was working in neurological clinical trials at the Austin Hospital. In 2017, my research team was tasked with trialling a very old treatment for weight loss that might be used to treat Dravet Syndome, a rare form of epilepsy.

Children with Dravet Syndrome can experience violent seizures throughout their lives, starting as young as six months of age. This condition nearly always leads to the development of an intellectual disability, and at that time, there was a 15 per cent mortality rate by age 20. In my role within the clinical trials team, I was able to watch a 13-year-old boy from a country town make incredible progress within months, from needing constant parental care, to reaching a level of cognitive improvement and freedom from seizures that allowed him to cook his own meals and ride a motorbike around the family farm. It was like turning on a light bulb. Just like that, this experimental treatment had transformed his lifestyle and that of his entire family. Witnessing the life-changing power of clinical trials has fuelled my passion for this field and I’m excited to see the difference Barwon Health’s own clinical trials centre will make in the Geelong community. We’re in a position where our research can fix problems and offer hope to people who haven’t had any treatment options previously.

As the director of the Adrian Costa Clinical Trials Centre, I believe we’re in an exciting phase where the site location will soon be announced, the first construction is around the corner, and we now have 10 trials in the start-up phase With more too follow.  As part of the planning process, I’ve been raising the centre’s profile with clinical trial sponsors locally and internationally to attract new studies, while also connecting with networks across Australia that will direct trials to our service. We’re fortunate to be in a position where Barwon Health’s executive team has committed to make research a priority for the Geelong region. This means that while some research centres both in Australia and overseas can take months or even years to approve a new trial, we will have a turnaround time measured in weeks to approve new research. This gives us an advantage in securing clinical trials for Geelong.

A priority of this centre will be to address the unmet health needs in the community, with an ultimate research goal to deliver more than just results and findings. We will be developing treatments to improve health, and trialling those with people in the community. For example, we’re interested in attracting new neurological research for autism and dementia treatments that don’t currently exist. While there is no standard treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, there are many ongoing trials in the research community that can be viewed as a way to treat people who currently don’t have any other options. The community benefits of clinical trials are very large, with opportunities to offer new treatments. Many studies have shown that people who are part of clinical trials have better health than those who aren’t, and more local trials will improve the overall health of the community by giving access to new treatments where there previously was none. Our work will also provide evidence that can inform the way healthcare is conducted across the region, while also offering pathways for local researchers to stay in the community rather than moving interstate or overseas. Improving our research reputation improves our reputation as a whole, and makes Barwon Health more attractive to specialised staff with high levels of expertise.

The Costa Centre will allow us to cover new ground at Barwon Health, including first-time collaborations between different medical fields. These types of clinical partnerships will explore links that lead to new ways of diagnosis and treatment for different conditions. We’ll also be finding ways to bring more and better trials to Geelong at earlier stages of development, with innovative trials that will test brand new lab-developed medicines for the first time. A telehealth suite at the Costa Centre is another innovative feature that will help decentralise the process of research, providing greater access to for greater regional community involvement. One big change over the next 10 years is that trials will become far more decentralised, with the changes forced by COVID-19 teaching us ways to conduct important trials without participants leaving their homes. People can now have a “Zoom” consultation, with the medication sent to their home, and that’s a game-changer for a regional health service.

I’ve seen how clinical trials can transform lives and I’m excited to bring that to people in our region. With so much potential to provide new access to people who need life-changing treatment, the community has a lot to look forward to. I believe the legacy of the Adrian Costa Clinical Trials Centre will be one that holds up hope where there wasn’t any in the past. For people who have lived with their injury or illness without any respite, the possibility of accessing new treatment is the first step towards living a healthier life.

To support the work of the Adrian Costa Clinical Trials Centre contact the Barwon Health Foundation.