Keep on breathing while you sleep


Professor Peter Eastwood

17 September 2009

Why do some people stop breathing when they are asleep? Are these people in even more danger under anaesthetic? What can be done about it?

Seeking insights into the mechanisms behind upper airway collapse during sleep and anaesthesia, Professor Peter Eastwood’s team at Perth’s Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and the University of Western Australia found posture plays a significant role in reducing the risk of obstructive sleep apnoea.

Here, as well as telling Dr Andi Horvath about that work, Prof Eastwood paints a picture of day-to-day life as a biomedical researcher.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-Over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Every year NHMRC celebrates ten of Australia’s best health and medical research projects. In this interview series we explore the job, the person and the event that led to a career in medical research.

Interviewer: I’m Dr Andi Horvath. Come with me and meet these Chief Investigators of medical research projects. Let’s go talk to Professor Peter Eastwood. He’s a researcher at Perth’s Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and at the University of Western Australia.

Hi Peter, thanks for talking to us. Congratulations on your NHandMRC success. Tell us a little bit about what you do in your research.

Prof Eastwood: Our primary focus is on understanding the mechanisms underlying sleep apnoea. Many people have heard about it but perhaps don’t understand it and it’s quite simply the fact that when we go to sleep, all the muscles in our body tend to relax. And in people who have either smaller airways or whose muscles tend to relax more, their throat collapses – when they fall asleep their throat collapses – and you just can’t get any air into your lungs. And because the body is still using oxygen, the oxygen levels in the blood start going down and the brain, which is still functioning during sleep says, ‘hey this is not on’ and it wakes you up, just enough so that the muscles in the throat come back on and that’s usually when you hear this great big, you know (makes sound), big snort as the airway opens up. And this happens over and over all night long because we need to be in that deep sleep to have good restful sleep and people with severe sleep apnoea this can happen up to 700 times a night.

Interviewer: And this can also happen during surgery?

Prof Eastwood: Well, I mean surgery is a worst case scenario and that’s why we rely on anesthetists so heavily, because the drugs which we use in surgery completely knock out all those reflexes. There are some interesting parallels between the way the airway behaves – so the throat behaves during anesthesia – and the way the throat behaves during sleep and it’s those interactions which our current research program is focusing on.

Interviewer: Professor Peter Eastwood, give us a picture of what you do day-to-day, let’s say if we followed you around.

Prof Eastwood: I find that the longer I stay in medical research the less time I find myself in a laboratory. So I have a group of students, some administrative staff and some Post Doctoral Fellows. And a lot of my time now is spent meeting with them, discussing research projects, discussing ways to analyse the data that we find, and to interpret the data and to write up the data. I guess our currency in research is publications. We want to get our findings out to our peers and also out to the general public and we do that by writing manuscripts, by writing scientific journals, scientific papers.

Interviewer: So what’s the most exciting part of your job, what do you really love?

Prof Eastwood: One of them would be, if you come up with an idea or you have a question which you want to answer, and you design the experiment and you seek the ethics approval and you start the study and that’s a long process to get it worked out. So the first time you see your first person and data’s rolling off, you can work out in physiology whether your hypothesis is correct or not. So that’s the first thing, it’s very exciting when it does pan out. A bit depressing when it doesn’t but that’s all a part of science. The other thing of course is presenting your work to colleagues at international conferences. That’s always very exciting because you get feedback as to how they think your work is and I guess the last thing would be getting responses from journals. Publishing our work and getting it out into the general public is absolutely critical for us.

Interviewer: So Peter, how did you get interested in this field, where did it all start?

Prof Eastwood: I’ve always had an interest in science, more specifically biology and even more specifically human physiology. And so I did my training in the US, did an undergraduate degree over there and started doing pre-medicine, and decided that wasn’t really for me and moved into kind of exercise physiology and then went into pre-physical therapy – it was called athletic training over there – and I was kind of beating around the bush I think until I discovered that I thought I wanted to do a PhD and that’s when my research interest really peaked.

Interviewer: So how long does it take to be a medical researcher?

Prof Eastwood: Andi I think there’s lots of different ways you could go and end up with a career in medical research. I had a very circuitous pathway. I think if you are thinking about a career in medical research you should consider taking science courses either in high school or in your undergraduate degrees. And most of the universities now at the undergraduate level will offer small research projects with established research groups and I cannot recommend those more for people who want to get a feel for research. There’s nothing like doing a small project yourself to see if it’s something that you like, and if you do then perhaps you go on and do honours degrees where you do your own first research project and write a thesis – and perhaps write a paper – and then go on and do a PhD. So I think just early on, give it a go if the opportunity arises, seek advice and talk to people who are currently working in the area.

Interviewer: So what sort of hours do you work and do you manage a work-life balance? Is there a Peter outside the lab?

Prof Eastwood: Yes there is. The hours required to do medical research and stay in medical research and sustain a research program are enormous and there’s no getting away from that. But the trade-off is that it’s very satisfying work – you are your own boss, and the hours a very flexible. And for me I have a young family and my wife works part time, so I get the kids ready for school three days a week, take them to school and I haven’t missed a school assembly. The hardest thing I find is just sneaking in a bit of time for myself to keep physically fit because of the work load and the family load.

Interviewer: So Peter what do you think you would have been if you weren’t a medical researcher?

Prof Eastwood: I would like to say professional surfer because I love surfing but I’m really bad at it so that was never ever going to happen, but it’s certainly a passion of mine. Realistically, I would have ended up in a health related field, specifically what that would be, who knows?

Interviewer: Professor Peter Eastwood it’s been fascinating talking to you. Thanks for all your advice and interesting insights into being a medical researcher.

Prof Eastwood: Thanks very much Andi, lovely to talk to you.

Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You’ll find more information about this and other Health and Medical Research issues on our website at