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Magazines : Our Place - Geelong Region Magazine 2011
Barwon Health has launched a world-first study into the impact of the modern environment on children's health and development. In what is believed to be the most comprehensive study of its kind in the world, the research by Barwon Health's Child Health Research Unit (CHERUB) and led by paediatrician Peter Vuillermin, will collect scores of biological samples from hundreds of mothers and babies in the Geelong region. e Barwon Infant Study started mid-last year and will involve more than 1000 pregnant women. According to Dr Vuillermin, the Geelong region is the perfect place for community-based research. "It's a large enough population to give a critical mass and provide a good cross-section of people but small enough to retain a sense of community,' ' he says. "I've found that people are willing to help out in Geelong; they want to give something back.' ' Proof of this is not only the number of pregnant women agreeing to participate in the Barwon Infant Study but also the outstanding support the project is receiving from grassroots community groups, Dr Vuillermin says. Funds have been raised for a lung function testing machine and a minus-80 degree, super-freezer (for the storage of samples) by the Shane O'Brien Memorial Asthma Association and the Our Women, Our Children committee. " ey are fantastic people who really care about their community", Dr Vuillermin says. e Barwon Infant Study is unique for its detailed array of biological samples and measurements, collected from both mothers and babies, he says. e blood, hair, urine and stool samples will be used to test three major hypotheses: at children who develop allergic diseases have a smaller range of bugs in their gut as a result of modern environmental factors such as diet, emphasis on hygiene and increased use of antibiotics. Because of this their immune systems fail to develop normally. at children who suffer more infections early in life have adverse cardiovascular development, which may predispose them to heart attacks and strokes in later life. at children who have more viral respiratory tract infections and who become allergic to airborne allergens in early life are at greater risk of abnormal lung development and asthma. e main aim of the study is to identify elements of the modern environment which may have adverse effects on babies' physical development. Modern chemicals used around the home (for example, in cleaning agents), reduced vitamin D levels as a result of more time spent indoors and less exposure to sunlight, increased usage of antibiotics and the taking of vitamin supplements in place of a healthy, balanced diet are all possible culprits. "(As a result of the research) we will be well-placed to learn important things about the impact of the modern environment on our children and how to give them a healthy start in life,' ' Dr Vuillermin says. " ere are a lot of interesting hypotheses about the modern environment out there. Some will be important and some won't; we need to sort the wheat from the chaff. "Many diseases have their origins in early life and this is a key window of opportunity for disease prevention.' ' e Barwon Infant Study is being undertaken in collaboration with the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and has attracted more than $1.8 million in funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. Dr Peter Vuillermin in his Barwon Health research unit. Photographs: Tony Kerrigan. "Many diseases have their origins in early life and this is a key window of opportunity for disease prevention.'' in her Deakin University lab is not a new spray, swat or repellent but the eradication of one of the world's most devastating mosquito-borne diseases, malaria. e disease affects more than 400 million people every year, killing more than one million (often children). Its most lethal form is caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Dr de Koning-Ward and her team have discovered how the parasite remodels its host red blood cell to increase its chances of sur vival -- and cause the deadly disease. e discovery is expected to lead to the development of an effective, new anti-malarial therapy. Dr de Koning-Ward, last year named among Australia's top 10 researchers by the National Health and Medical Research Council and awarded a Prize for Excellence along with a $315,250 grant to continue her potentially life-saving work, moved to Geelong to live and work at the end of 2007. e former Montpellier Primary and Belmont High girl's new family home is "just down the road" from the one she grew up in. Dr de Koning-Ward, who lived and worked in Melbourne for some years following her graduation from Melbourne University, admits she was initially reticent to move back to Geelong when her husband, Alister Ward, was offered a senior position with Deakin's new medical school. Now she doesn't want to live anywhere else. "It's a great lifestyle here in Geelong; we all absolutely love it,' ' she says. " e kids do Nippers (at Torquay) and it's fantastic ... we have everything we want and need here.' ' Far from being an intellectual backwater, Geelong is at the forefront of medical and scientific research, so her career took off rather than slowed down after moving from Melbourne. e Deakin School of Medicine is rapidly becoming "a medical school of choice" because of its state-of-the-art facilities and committed, passionate teaching staff. "We have students now who have a choice in where they go, listing Deakin as first preference, above Melbourne and Monash,' ' Dr de Koning-Ward says. A huge amount of research is taking place at the university, making it an exciting and stimulating environment in which to work. Dr de Koning-Ward hopes her success will inspire other young women to undertake research. Traditionally, few mothers have made their careers in medical research because of the onerous commitments associated with the pathway, she says. However, while research is certainly "more than a nine to five job", it is also quite flexible, Dr de Koning- Ward says. She managed to, variously, not work at all and then work part-time when the children were younger, returning to full-time work when they were at school. "I hope what I have shown is that, with good support behind you, it's possible to have a fulfilling research career and a family life as well, she says." "When I started I didn't know anyone who had done this level of research and had kids. "I didn't have a mentor, so if I can help young women today in career advice or as a mentor -- show them that it can be done -- that would be a real achievement for me.' ' Barwon Health paediatrician Peter Vuillermin is undertaking comprehensive research into the environment's impact on infant health Our Place - the Geelong Region Magazine 25
Breakaway Autumn 2011