Professor Peter R Schofield, CEO, Neuroscience Research Australia
In the first of a two part exclusive with International Innovation, Professor Peter R Schofield, CEO of NeuRA, explains the synergies between basic and clinical science in the study of neurology
Could you offer a brief history of Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and the principles upon which the institute was founded?
The institute was founded by the South Eastern Sydney Area Health Service and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with four founding scientists and clinicians in 1992 who sought to create a dedicated medical research institute focused on the neurosciences. The institute commenced operations in the renovated former Chest Hospital buildings in 1993 as the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, reflecting the name of the hospital campus on which we are located. The Prince of Wales campus is now the only one in the state to house public, private, women’s and children’s hospitals and is a major teaching hospital of UNSW. The institute has grown from 40 original researchers, postgraduate students and support staff to over 300 staff today.
A great strength of the institute is that there has always been a very strong focus on clinical research, which we continue to nurture. Our major growth in laboratory-based research in molecular, cellular and genetic neuroscience commenced in 2004, when we also broadened our remit to cover not just research into neurological disorders, but also psychiatric and psychological conditions.
In 2010 we changed our name to Neuroscience Research Australia or NeuRA. The name better communicates what we do, namely neuroscience research in Australia and for Australians and the global community. As I say to members of the public, if you want a cure for dementia, or schizophrenia, you need neuroscience research.
Our vision is to prevent and cure disease and disability of the brain and nervous system through leadership, excellence and innovation in neuroscience research. NeuRA has become one of the largest independent centres of research on the brain and nervous system in Australia with a significant international profile. Our eminent neuroscientists, clinicians and outstanding research leaders relate laboratory-based research to clinical research involving patients to ensure that our discoveries are translated into health benefits for people as soon as possible.
What unique benefits do your researchers enjoy?
Independent medical research institutes are a major feature of the Australian scene. Typically they are located on the campus of large teaching hospitals (in our case Prince of Wales Hospital) and operate in close partnership with a major university – we partner with one of Australia’s top tier universities, the University of New South Wales. While we enjoy the benefits of these very close relationships, the key reason why medical research institutes are so strong in Australia is because they bring a focused research intensity that does not exist elsewhere in the country. The ability to focus on research, while drawing on the best of the teaching strengths in postgraduate research, and being informed by a strong clinical environment allow medical research institutes to excel in their chosen area of focus. With such a strong focus, the other unique feature is the strong philanthropic support that medical research attracts. These contributions from an incredible group of supporters, both large and small, allow us to add the extra elements to our research environment.
How can researchers join NeuRA or collaborate with any of your projects if their work is relevant to your goals?
Like most medical research institutes, we are always looking to recruit outstanding graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research group leaders. In recent years we have secured senior professorial level recruits such as Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert from the US National Institutes of Health and Professor John Hodges from the University of Cambridge in the UK. Equally, we have also been able to attract outstanding emerging researcher leaders back to Australia, such as Dr Danny Eckert from Harvard Medical School.
At the postdoctoral researcher level, the institute works with candidates to identify grant or fellowship funding opportunities and of the current 52 postdoctoral fellows, 11 have come to Sydney from overseas. Similarly, there are currently 54 postgraduate student researchers, nine of whom are from overseas.
How is NeuRA funded?
Our funding comes primarily from competitive peer-reviewed grants awarded to our researchers by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council and other agencies including the American NIH and European Seventh Framework. Research grants represent two-thirds of our $20 million operating budget, while infrastructure (indirect costs) funding comes from State and Commonwealth programmes and represents one-fifth of costs. The final and crucial component comes from philanthropy and represents support from generous individuals, including bequests, and charitable trusts and foundations.
In 2008, the construction of a new medical research facility began on your premises. Has this facility been completed? What will it offer?
The current institute facilities are renovated villas that comprised the Randwick Chest Hospital. Medical research has made chest hospitals redundant! Our challenge is to use neuroscience research to equivalently reduce the health care requirements for neurological and psychiatric disorders.
In 2008, we commenced planning for the development of the Neuroscience Research Precinct and commenced construction of the first stage of a planned four stage development in 2010. Together with the existing villas, we will increase our research capacity to 12,240 m2. When we occupy the completed building, the initial fit out will provide new purpose designed and built clinical research facilities, and both wet laboratory (eg. test tubes and other biological research) and dry laboratories (eg. human physiology research).
With such a strong focus on engaging volunteer and patient participation in our research, the new Clinical Research Facility will be a key element of the new building. We have designed the facility to ensure that the interactions between NeuRA’s scientists and clinicians and our research volunteers and patients are comfortable, efficient and positive experiences. The facility comprises a suite of nine interview and testing rooms together with five clinical procedures suites. This will enable our researchers to interview and assess research participants involved in our studies on a range of debilitating conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, falls and balance disorders, dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Participants will be able to undergo clinical procedures that underpin these studies, such as blood collection and clinical monitoring.
Our strategic planning led us to develop an integrated research solution that could meet both NeuRA and other precinct partner needs in the short term and into the future. Thus, we have only completed the fit out of around 60 per cent of the building to date, and are continuing our capital fundraising campaign to enable the full fit-out. This future capacity will add an MRI imaging suite capable of housing two 3T MRIs; a basement with a 25 m long gait laboratory to be used in our movement and falls research; a crash sled for our research into neural injury; and an additional wet laboratory floor.
To what extent do you bring together scientists and clinicians? Has this yielded any success?
One of the key strengths of NeuRA is the integration of our clinical and fundamental research. While many medical research institutes are focused on basic biomedical research, we consider one of our key strengths is our focus on both clinical and basic research. Not only can basic studies inform clinical research, the richness of clinical information can inform basic science. For example, in our Neural Injury theme, our research led by Professor Lynne Bilston into the causes of childhood injury and death in motor vehicle accidents, has led to changes in the national laws on child restraint. These evidenced-based changes will substantially reduce the 70 deaths and thousands of serious injuries (principally head and spinal) that occur in children in motor vehicles each year in Australia.
In schizophrenia, the realisation that genetic polymorphisms in the oestrogen receptor gene are correlated with cognitive function, has led to a clinical trial of the selective oestrogen receptor modulator raloxifene to reduce the negative symptoms of schizophrenia such as cognitive impairment. Finally, in the area of frontotemporal dementia, the clinical dissection of the disorder can now be correlated with imaging, genetic, biological and neuropathological outcomes. This information will be critical in assuring that well-defined patient groups are used in future clinical trials.
What are your goals for the next five years? Is there anything NeuRA would like to expand into?
We are proud of our focus on both clinical and fundamental neuroscience and expect that it will position us well to focus increasingly on translational neuroscience. Our new research facility will help us to achieve this and our current capital fundraising campaign will allow us to complete the fit out of the remainder of the building.
In the mid-term, the key opportunity is to work with our precinct partners to build the second and subsequent stages of the neuroscience research precinct and achieve the benefits of even greater research consolidation on campus. Development and consolidation of research facilities and research infrastructure, combined with establishing a critical mass of neuroscience researchers working under common governance, will underpin our collective neuroscience research activities and its translation. This is the model that is increasingly being adopted nationally and internationally, for example in research intensive comprehensive cancer centres. The opportunity for us is to apply ours skills and capacity in neuroscience research to impact disorders of the brain and nervous system.
Two new research themes that we have identified through our strategic planning processes, and we feel present outstanding opportunities for expanding our research activities, are in pain and addiction research. These areas either build on our existing research base or are areas in which we have identified opportunities for synergistic development with our precinct partners.