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Five Australian innovators of therapeutic goods

24 January 2020

This Australia Day, we celebrate five Australian innovators in the field of therapeutic goods. 

Some of these innovators were born in Australia, while others made Australia their home.  From penicillin to spray-on skin and beyond, their contributions to medicines and medical devices have transformed millions of lives throughout the world.

Howard Florey – penicillin

An Adelaide native born in 1898, Howard Florey became a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford.  After gaining a PhD at Cambridge, Florey returned to Oxford to lead a research team.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial properties of the blue-green mould Penicillium notatum, but Fleming did not develop a widespread medical application for his discovery.

Taking up Fleming’s work, Howard Florey and his Oxford research team developed a method for large-scale synthesis of penicillin. Florey also conducted the first clinical trials of penicillin as a treatment for bacterial infections between 1941 and 1942.

Florey shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Fleming and researcher Ernst Chain for his role in the discovery of penicillin.

Florey later became President of the Royal Society in England and Chancellor of the Australian National University.  Between 1973 and 1995, Australia’s $50 note featured Florey.

John Cade – lithium

John Cade was born in Victoria in 1912, the son of a mental hospital medical superintendent. Cade studied medicine at the University of Melbourne, and in World War 2 as a prisoner-of-war set up a mental health unit at the notorious Changi camp.

After the war Cade joined the staff of the Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital. Convinced by his experiences that mental illness could have a physical cause, he conducted experiments on guinea pigs that involved lithium carbonate.

Inadvertently, Cade discovered that a large dose of lithium has a dramatic calming effect on guinea pigs. Cade applied this discovery to patients with severe bipolar disorder, with startling positive results.

Bipolar disorder is a condition where people experience extreme moods. Both the depressive and manic sides of this disorder can disable, and people with bipolar have a significantly higher risk of suicide.

Historically, mental illness was often considered untreatable, with confinement the only option. Lithium improved quality of life for countless people with bipolar disorder, and demonstrated that medication can have a role in treating mental illness.

In 1976, Cade received the Order of Australia for the discovery of lithium as a treatment for mental illness. But Cade was humble about his discovery, comparing himself to a prospector that found gold.

Barry Marshall – stomach ulcer treatment

Born in 1951 in gold rush town Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, Barry Marshall received a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery at the University of Western Australia in 1974.

Working with pathologist Robin Warren at the Royal Perth Hospital in 1982, Marshall developed a hypothesis that peptic ulcers were caused by H. pylori bacteria.

A stomach ulcer is a tear in the tissue lining of the stomach. Ulcers are painful and nauseating, and in severe cases the blood loss causes shock.

Prior to Marshall’s discovery, scientists believed that ulcers were caused by stress or diet. Marshall’s proof that bacteria causes most ulcers established antibiotics as an effective treatment for many ulcers. Treatment for H. pylori also lowers the risk of gastric cancer.

For the discovery of the H. pylori bacteria’s role in disease, Marshall and his partner Warren shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Fiona Wood – spray-on skin

Born in England in 1958, Fiona Wood studied at St Thomas' Hospital Medical School in London, and became Director of the Royal Perth Hospital Burns Unit in Western Australia.

In 2002, Wood’s team at the Royal Perth Hospital treated 28 victims of the Bali bombing, many with severe injuries. Wood used a spray-on skin of her own invention to treat some of these patients.

Major burns are often fatal through infection, shock or organ failure. Grafts of transplanted skin are usually effective but large burns often require a skin donor. Skin grafts can be grown but take weeks to culture in a laboratory.

Working with Marie Stoner in 1993, Wood developed a method for growing skin directly on patients by spraying skin cells on burns. This method is fast and can heal more quickly with less scarring than other grafts. For patients with severe burns in particular, this improves survivability.

Wood became Australian of the Year in 2005 for her contributions to burns care.

Ian Frazer – HPV vaccine

Born in Scotland in 1953, Ian Frazer completed a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at the University of Edinburgh in 1977, and became a Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland in 1985.

Working with virologist Jian Zhou and researcher Xiao-Yi Sun at the University of Queensland in the 1990s, Frazer developed the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer.  In 2018, approximately 311,000 women worldwide died from cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine was the first vaccine targeted to prevent a cancer.  Because of this vaccine, Australia is now on the cusp of eliminating cervical cancer.

Ian Frazer became an Australian citizen in 1998.  In 2006, he became Australian of the Year in recognition of his work on the HPV vaccine.