University of Melbourne Magazine

10,000 minds, one ambition

  • Professor Stephen Smith outside the Peter Doherty Institute

    Professor Stephen Smith outside the Peter Doherty Institute.

    In a previous life, Dr Ashley Ng graduated in medicine from the University of Melbourne. Then, after venturing all of a few city blocks to St Vincent’s Hospital and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre for specialist training, he crossed Grattan Street, Parkville, to practise as a clinical haematologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

    He’d realised his ambition – to treat adult patients with too-often lethal blood cancers. Then one day he came to an inconvenient, albeit professionally energising, realisation: that he might ultimately save more lives by stepping away from the bedside and returning to study, navigating his way into a premier research laboratory.

    In part this insight was nurtured by the story of one of his medical heroes – Professor John Colebatch, whose work in childhood leukemia in the 1950s and ’60s at the nearby Royal Children’s Hospital evolved the practice of randomised clinical trials that are today the international gold standard by which new therapies are tested.

    Previously, medicine had nothing to offer young leukemia patients beyond a more comfortable death. But Colebatch’s then controversial trial of what we now recognise as chemotherapy, treating children with anti-folic acid, began to yield dramatic improvements.

    “It revolutionised treatment,” Ng says. In a generation the disease went from being uniformly fatal to a 75 per cent cure rate. “That arose from medical research here in Melbourne.”

    For Ng this proved a motivating parable of the power of translational research – ushering the latest insights from laboratories into practice on the wards and in the community. It’s a rare capacity even in neighbourhoods boasting elite institutions, requiring access to the precious resources of patients, tissue samples, data about how patients respond as well as an engaged corps of research and clinical professionals.

    Dr Ashley Ng

    Dr Ashley Ng welcomes a more collaborative approach to research.

    Having resolved to switch from the clinical to the research realm, Ng found, again, that he didn’t need to venture far to find an opportunity many young scientists would cross hemispheres to reach. Next door at the storied Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) was a laboratory recognised as a world leader in deciphering, and interrupting, the behaviour of cancer cells.

    Soon Ng was pursuing his research PhD in a unit founded by the legendary Professor Don Metcalf, who at age 85 can still be found working at his laboratory bench, and with whom Ng went on to co-author several journal papers. Think of it as the scientific equivalent of the justsigned guitarist being invited to share a set on stage with the Rolling Stones.

    Ashley Ng could be the poster child for the cluster of institutions known collectively in the game as the Parkville Precinct – educated, inspired, nurtured, employed, equipped and deployed with the space of a couple of city blocks, ultimately to the benefit of both Victorian patients and the national medical enterprise. But he’s no wide-eyed ingenue.

    Having worked both sides of the track – Royal Parade historically separating the hospital and research jurisdictions of the Precinct – he’s had a glimpse of the challenges ahead in the more porous, collaborative future being orchestrated for the research, educational and clinical institutions of Parkville.

    The Precinct is undergoing dramatic change, most obviously flaunted by the shiny new kids on the block. There’s the $210 million Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (PDI), where 700 infection and immunology specialists are now settling in – among them knockabout Nobel Laureate Doherty himself, who confesses to still feeling discombobulated entering a building with his name on it. On the opposite corner the $1 billion Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC), the new home of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the research and clinical services of the nearby hospitals and University, is rapidly taking shape.

    But the change is, as Ng observes, “about so much more than the buildings. It’s the way of thinking about how we approach disease and treat it in a collaborative way, both for the patient today and also for the patient who comes in 10 years time”. And it won’t be easy.

    “We need a small earthquake to shake our thinking out of historical and political silos,” he says. The seismic shifts are starting to be felt, and are both welcome and challenging. “We know we need to initiate projects and embrace a culture that allows us to collaborate effectively across the partner institutions, to deliver cutting edge clinical care as well as to become a vanguard of cancer research worldwide.

    “The nice thing about Parkville is that we have institutes here with the experience and the technology to do this work. The idea behind (the emerging) alliances is to get together and try to optimise all those things, to pull them all together to try to answer specific questions in the best and most cost-effective way we can.

    “We have a major opportunity with the initiative of the VCCC. The bulk of the hard work however, to achieve our aspirational goals, still lies ahead of us.”