Pregnancy research - Highlights

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Dr Tom Cade with patient Gemma Cooper
Researcher Dr Tom Cade with patient Gemma Cooper

2021 Highlights

This second year of COVID and its variants has been once again a frustrating one for us all in so many ways, including an inability to progress our research plans as we had hoped.

Our patience and resilience have been sorely tested.

Certainly, despite the recent arrival of COVID’s Omicron variant, there are some green shoots appearing in support of a determination to move on from the plethora of lockdowns and restrictions of recent times and start reclaiming the freedoms we once enjoyed (and, dare I say it, took for granted).

Notwithstanding the difficulties we have all faced, the PRC has again had a strong year, thanks in no small measure to the committed efforts of all our staff, students and collaborators. 

Pleasingly, in 2021 we have maintained our long-term publication rate, with 40 publications, including important updates on COVID’s impact on pregnancy (with the PRC represented by co-authors Clare Whitehead and Penny Sheehan). (see PRC publications #816 & #832) and a key report that appeared on line late in this year in the journal Pregnancy Hypertension on the current consensus regarding the use of the sFlt-1/PlGF ratio test in the clinical management of preeclampsia. (see PRC publication #849)

The RWH introduced this important new test here in Australia, and thanks to the efforts of Gabriel Jones, Jo Bruhn, Lionel Taiwa, Adrienne White, Moira Stewart and Sue Duggan, the PRC now has one of the largest databases in the world on the test’s clinical utility. This database has served as an invaluable audit resource and is the basis of an application we submitted this year for the sFlt-1/PlGF ratio test to be placed on the Medicare Benefits Schedule. If this application is successful, the test will become widely available to pregnant women throughout Australia and serve as a lasting legacy to our pioneering work on this test.

A very important highlight of the year was the appointment of Dr Sarah Price as the inaugural RWH Director of Obstetric Medicine. This exciting new position will provide a platform for the development of the relatively new subspecialty of Obstetric Medicine here at the RWH. Research in Obstetric Medicine has considerable overlap with the basic and clinical research interests and activities of the PRC and we warmly welcome Sarah and wish her every success.

Our external, competitive research grant support remains healthy, with Chief Investigator status NHMRC grants being held by PRC researchers Clare Whitehead investigating fetal growth restriction, Stefan Kane on preterm birth, Penny Sheehan on uterine function in pregnancy and myself on projects dealing with preeclampsia and preterm birth. 

As well, we an extensive network of productive collaborations, including with Helena Parkington, Harry Coleman and Katrina Colafella from Monash University on human uterine and cardiovascular function in pregnancy, with Wojtek Chrzanowski in Sydney on exosomes, with Ben Mol and Rui Wang at Monash University on preterm birth epidemiology, with Daniel Heath from Biomedical Engineering at the University of Melbourne on stem cell scaffolding, with Jon Hyett in Sydney on preeclampsia prevention, with Phil Melton and Eric Moses at the Menzies Institute on preeclampsia and subsequent later life cardiovascular disease, with Ricardo Palma-Dias of the RWH Ultrasound Service (with the support of Karen Reidy), with Alison Nankervis here at the RWH on diabetes in pregnancy (with special thanks to Di Maxwell for her help facilitating this project), with Andy Shennan at King’s College in London on preterm birth, with the CHOPAN COVID registry team (with Clare Whitehead and Di Maxwell front and centre on this initiative), and with Jo Said at Western Health on corticosteroid use for fetal lung maturation. Next year we have been invited to support a MRFF funded immunisation study through a collaboration with Michelle Giles from the RWH Infectious Diseases service. We continue to provide co-investigator obstetric support for Sant-Rayn Pasricha’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute project funded by a Gates Foundation grant investigating iron supplementation on pregnancy outcomes in Bangladesh. We look forward to collaborating with Sarah Price on her research interest of maternal metabolic health and pregnancy, and we welcome Padma Murthi who will be joining us in 2022 as a REDI-Bridge Fellow.

With this collaboration network and degree and range of research funding support, we can look forward with confidence to a productive continuation of our mission translating human pregnancy research into improved health outcomes for mothers and their babies.

Following on from the success of Tom Cade in 2019 and that of Gina Kusuma in 2020 in receiving the University of Melbourne’s Arthur Nyulasy Prize for the best postgraduate research thesis from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, it was a great pleasure to learn that the 2021 Arthur Nyulasy Prize has again been awarded to one of our research higher degree graduates, Hannah Yong. We congratulate Hannah on this splendid achievement. This “three-peat” is a remarkable accomplishment and is testimony to the consistently excellent level of academic supervision provided to all our research students. In this regard, I particularly acknowledge Bill Kalionis, Harry Georgiou, Claire Grant, Tom Cade and Maria Kokkinos. Their efforts in support of the endeavours of our research students are reflected in the uniformly outstanding results obtained by the students they mentor.

We extend congratulations to Clare Whitehead on the birth of her son Alexander, to Matilda Wynter on completing a First Class Honours year with us and fulfilling her ambition to gain admission to medical school to train as a doctor, and to Stefan Kane for successfully completing an excellent PhD on the role of maternal ophthalmic ultrasound in the management of preeclampsia.

This year we bid farewell to Janet Stevenson who retired after being the PRC’s indispensable "at the bench" medical scientist for over 20 years. She was the quintessential "quiet achiever" who went about her job without fuss or bother while maintaining the necessary high standards of methodological precision and data integrity essential to top quality experimental results. Her laboratory expertise fed key data into the hundreds of research publications generated by our Centre over the years. She was always willing to assist students and other staff in her laboratory environment with orientation, induction, and training. She was an exceptionally reliable and valued member of the PRC team. We wish her a fulfilling and enjoyable retirement.

Sadly, this year saw the passing of Roger Short, a legendary figure in the world of reproductive biology. Roger was the most inspiring lecturer I have ever had the good fortune to come across. I first met him when he was Director of the MRC Reproductive Biology Centre in Edinburgh. I attended a course he was running and listening to him talk about his interests in mammalian reproduction had a profoundly stimulating impact on my career, and I’m sure the same applies to hundreds of other reproductive scientists and clinicians. One of the highlights of my early days at the RWH was facilitating Roger’s move from Monash University to the PRC in 1996 where he worked with us until his retirement in 2006. He was a remarkable individual in so many ways and will be fondly remembered by the generations who were inspired by him.

Shaun Brennecke
Director
Pregnancy Research Centre
Royal Women’s Hospital 
Melbourne

2020 Highlights

2020, the year of COVID-19, has been an unprecedented one in so many ways!

Notwithstanding the difficulties we all faced, the Pregnancy Research Centre has had an excellent year, thanks in no small measure to the commitment and resilience of all our staff, students and collaborators. In this regard, I especially acknowledge with gratitude the efforts of Jo Bruhn, Lionel Taiwa, Adrienne White, Di Maxwell, Moira Stewart, Sue Duggan, Karen Ready, Janet Stevenson and Claire Grant.

Pleasingly, we have maintained our long-term publication rate of 1-2 publications a fortnight, including a key report in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology on the new preterm labour predictive test we have developed, with Megan Di Quinzio as first author and Harry Georgiou as senior author. (see publication #789)

Our research grant support has also been strong. We have had ongoing NHMRC funding through 2020 and into 2021 in collaboration with Helena Parkington and Harry Coleman on human uterine function in pregnancy and labour, with Ben Mol on preterm birth epidemiology, and with Jon Hyett on preeclampsia prevention. New NHMRC grants have also been secured (in a very competitive environment) by PRC staff members Clare Whitehead investigating fetal growth restriction, Stefan Kane on preterm birth and Penny Sheehan (with Helena Parkington) on uterine function in pregnancy. 

As well, next year we shall be supported by NHMRC funding for a gestational diabetes study through a collaboration with Alison Nankervis from the RWH Diabetes Service, and by a NHMRC grant on preeeclampsia and subsequent later life cardiovascular disease in collaboration with Phil Melton and Eric Moses. We are also providing co-investigator obstetric support for a Walter and Eliza Hall Institute project funded by a Gates Foundation grant investigating iron supplementation on pregnancy outcomes in Bangladesh.

With this degree and range of research funding support, we can look forward with confidence to a productive continuation of our mission translating human pregnancy research into improved health outcomes for mothers and their babies.

Following on from Tom Cades’s 2019 success in receiving the University of Melbourne’s Arthur Nyulasy Prize for the best postgraduate research thesis from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, it was a great pleasure to learn that the 2020 Arthur Nyulasy Prize has again been awarded to one of our research higher degree graduates, Gina Kusuma. We congratulate Gina on this splendid achievement. 

I also acknowledge the consistently excellent level of academic supervision provided to all our research students by Bill Kalionis, Harry Georgiou and Maria Kokkinos. Their efforts are reflected in the uniformly outstanding results obtained by the students they mentor.

A very special highlight of the year was the richly deserved award in the Queen’s Birthday Australian Honours List of a Medal of the Order of Australia to our colleague Emeritus Professor Roger Pepperell for his many clinical, academic and educational contributions to Women’s Health during an illustrious professional career. Roger has been a long-term supporter and benefactor of the Pregnancy Research Centre, for which we owe him our most grateful thanks. We congratulate Roger on this prestigious national recognition of his life’s accomplishments.

Shaun Brennecke
Director
Pregnancy Research Centre
Royal Women’s Hospital 
Melbourne

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