Collaborating against the enemy: H1N1


Dr Simon Towler

February 2010

What’s the best way for 41 medical research teams to tackle a fast-tracked, $7 million effort to combat a pandemic threat? Collaborate, says WA Chief Medical Officer and NHMRC Council member Dr Simon Towler.

Here, in his closing remarks to leading minds from around the country at NHMRC’s two-day N1H1 swine flu workshop, Dr Towler promotes the benefits of collaboration.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to the National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Our podcasts aim to keep you in touch with major health and medical research issues and the people who shape them.

Introduction: In December 2009 NHMRC held a two day workshop, bringing together leading Australian researchers, clinicians and health officials to report their findings on pandemic H1N1 influenza research. One of the Chairs of the meeting was Dr Simon Towler, Chief Medical Officer for Western Australia and a member of the NHMRC Council. This is an extract from Dr Towler’s closing remarks to the workshop participants.

Dr Towler: In trying to look at this I tried to consider what were some of the themes that ran across the two days and some of the opportunities. This issue of coalitions I think was an extremely strong element of the whole two days, not just in those who came to the meeting with their coalitions already in place, but I do hope, and it seemed to me, that there were new coalitions being formed in the context of the meeting and it was clear that people were taking opportunities to build upon what they’d learnt from seeing other people’s presentations. There was no doubt, as we’ve just seen in the last presentation, building on past success was a clear element of how you move quickly to take up the opportunity that emerged when the NHMRC sought these grants.

I was very impressed by listening to a number of the people, particularly doing the epi [epidemiological] work, around having to adapt and change really in the context of the research work, which is something that perhaps more as a clinician I’m not so aware of. I think we got a very strong message from a lot of you about the very positive impact of timely support coming from the NHMRC and I think one of the things that we do need to reflect on there was even though it was quick, as Warrick outlined at the beginning of the meeting, there was no reduction in the requirement for quality peer review. The ability of the NHMRC to engage overseas peer reviewers, to be confident that we were seeking quality research, remains an important outcome. But, I think that the other message for me, which came up again and again, was that we need to be even more agile.

There’s no doubt that one of the themes – and I think probably I’m hammering it a little bit too hard – but fostering coalition support and partnerships seems to be a very clear element of what makes this stuff work. And I think for me as a Council member that I’ve been challenged to think about how we underpin that, and certainly talking to a few of the Chief Health Officers there was occasional frustration, saying: ‘well if only they’d come to speak to us, we had so much information we could have given them straight away’. So to me there’s a very important message there that how we build this so it works even better for everybody is important. I think we are trying to do work to improve the way in which we work respectfully with ethics committees, but also to ensure that the opportunities to do quality research are enhanced and agility is clearly going to be part of what we hope to get out of that.

There was a fascinating discussion about biobanks, there are all sorts of interesting issues with them, but there is no question they are fundamental. And how you put one together quickly or how you create a network of samples or what ever it is, I think is clearly going to be beneficial and when you see the extraordinary quality of some of the basic science being done. To hear people talking about getting their research up just as the pandemic disappeared – Western Australia was about three weeks after everybody else; if you contacted us we had hundreds of patients – so just a reminder flu doesn’t spread instantly. The other thing there for me was the great strength of the Intensive Care Society’s work was in fact the pre-existent data base and its partnership with its clinical trials organisation, so there’s a very strong element here about how you use the databases that exist and how we understand them and I think a lot of people know that so I won’t labour it.

Commitment from governments I think’s critical. Part of it comes simply through the existence of the NHMRC, but I do really want to compliment Queensland and New South Wales who got a number of mentions from people about providing funding on very short notice. We weren’t so successful in WA, but I think in this context the need for us to remember this outcome is the outcome of everybody’s efforts is important. And I really do think that I’d like to see – and really it’s a reflection for you – but this particular process both with the rapid grant cycle and the calling of this meeting, which for me has been a great privilege to attend, is really the very leadership role that I think the NHMRC needs to take in this place and I hope you’ll all reflect on that.

It was very interesting for me trying to pull these themes together. The NHMRC is fundamentally committed to best research and supporting great researchers, but we’re very interested in translation of new knowledge and its role in evidence-based public policy and clinical practice. I have seen no better demonstration of that process than what I think I’ve seen in the last two days as a great beginning for very important work.

And I think some of the themes that we identified at the Council level – and there is that dreadful word again about partnership – the key issues on pulling the evidence together, and I think we saw that happening almost in the ‘live’ in the last couple of days, the issue around creating leadership and leading opportunities for researchers and practitioners to work together is the same emphasis. And strengthening fundamental research and thinking about how that’s transformed, I think we saw a lot of that in action and we believe they’re important issues going forward.

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