A long history of neurosurgical support
Dr Brian North and Professor Robert Vink
(photo: Jo-Anna Robinson) The NeuroSurgical Research Foundation (NRF) was founded in 1963 by Dr Trevor Dinning to promote research and improve the diagnosis and treatment of conditions of the brain, spinal cord and nerves.
Since its inception, the foundation has broadened its areas of research to include various conditions such as brain tumours, stroke, concussion, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, subarachnoid haemorrhage and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
The NRF shares a strong relationship with the University of Adelaide, gifting donations amounting to more than $5.3 million to fund important neurosurgical research and equipment. It brings together clinicians, engineers and scientists to support a multidisciplinary approach to improve diagnosis and treatment.
This unique combination of expertise has led to significant advances in knowledge, such as the discovery by team pathologist Dr Peter Blumbergs that mild blows to the head can damage the brain. This breakthrough resulted in a world-wide groundswell of interest in brain damage in sporting injuries such as Australian Rules Football. The development of this multidisciplinary team and its ability to attract neurosurgical trainees to Adelaide is a proud achievement for Dr Brian North, who has been president of the foundation since 2004.
“We are combining practical and scientific skills for neurosurgeon-scientists. It is a big ask for someone trained in the practical skills of operating on the brain to also have highly developed scientific skills in the laboratory. Combining the two is quite an achievement,” said Brian.
After graduating with a medical degree from the University, Brian undertook neurosurgical training in Adelaide under Dr Trevor Dinning and Professor Donald Simpson, and was a trainee when the NRF was founded in 1963. He completed research training in Glasgow before returning to Adelaide in 1973 where he worked at Royal Adelaide Hospital and the University.
Brian has been the driving force behind securing many of the donations for the foundation, notably establishing the $800,000 Abbie Simpson Clinical Fellowship to support clinical neurosurgical research. He was also involved in fundraising for equipment at University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and formalising the neurosurgical training program in 2009.
After 11 years, Brian stepped down as president this year. His successor is Professor Robert Vink, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Adelaide and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia. Bob says the foundation has identified a gap in research into paediatrics and will fund research at the University in this area.
“One of the deficiencies in neuro-surgical research in Adelaide concerns paediatrics and we would like to build that up so the foundation will be making a gift that focuses on paediatric neurosurgical research this year.”
The NRF Paediatric Neurosurgical Research Trust Fund will gift $1 million to the University to fund research in paediatrics and aims to promote collaborative paediatric neurosurgical research with other national and international research groups. The NRF had the foresight to set up an administrative support fund which means that every cent of all donations given to the foundation goes straight to research.
“There are a lot of charities that take a high percentage for overheads and administration – but we don’t. We are in the fortunate position of having sufficient investments that enable us to ensure every funding dollar goes into research,” said Bob.
A promising drug intervention developed with seed funding from the foundation is substance P antagonists. It is hoped this will reduce brain swelling and reduce pressure on the brain that occurs when a head injury is sustained. Clinical trials will begin next year.
Dr Renée Turner (photo: Jo-Anna Robinson) Novel treatment brings hope for stroke sufferers
NRF Director of Neurosurgical Research and South Australian 2015 Young Tall Poppy Science Award winner, Dr Renée Turner, is passionate about science communication. She fell in love with research in her honours year and decided to pursue a PhD and a career in research.
Since setting out on that path, Renée has won over $1.6 million in research funding with regular support from the National Health and Medical Research Council since 2004. She also has a long-standing affiliation with the Neuro-Surgical Research Foundation (NRF).
Her research involves developing new therapies to treat brain swelling and elevated intracranial pressure within the brain following stroke. New therapies are urgently required to treat complications of stroke which carry a mortality rate of up to 80 per cent and are associated with extremely poor outcomes in survivors.
Frustrated with the poor clinical translation of therapeutic agents developed in the laboratory, Renée has developed a new approach to screen them prior to clinical assessment. She says by using relevant pre-clinical models and rigorous pre-clinical research, the likelihood of therapies translating into effective treatments will be improved.
“It’s been a long road, I have been working on unravelling the mechanisms of brain swelling and assessing this novel treatment since 2004,” says Renée. “I’m currently undertaking the final pre-clinical studies, after which clinical assessment will be possible. This treatment will begin testing in early 2016.”
NRF equipment donations
Funding from the NeuroSurgical Research Foundation has allowed the University to invest in the latest scientific equipment to support research:
2006 Stereotaxic digital injector ($30,000) that allows the automated and accurate injection of drugs into the brain in small volumes. The instrument can be used in neurosurgical studies of traumatic brain injury, stroke and Parkinson’s disease.
2007 Nanophotometer ($15,000) which has a wide range of applications, including the analysis of gene and protein changes following acute and chronic brain injury. It is widely used by students undertaking various neurosurgical research projects.
2007 Agilent bioanalyzer ($25,000) for the study of brain tissue to support world-leading research in stroke, Parkinson’s disease and brain swelling.
2010 Nanozoomer ($160,000) is a high-powered scanner which converts microscope slides of tissue into digital pictures, making the extraction of data much easier. Previously tissue sections had to be counted individually. Funds are now being raised for a larger version of the machine.
2010 Dean Bowman Brain Tumour Research Lab ($50,000) to help find cures and treatments for brain tumours. The research is focused on preventing the entry of cancer cells into the brain.
2015 A bio-plex magpix multiplex reader ($54,500) and automated bio-plex pro wash station to detect and measure inflammation and markers in tissue samples.
For more information about the NRF visit www.nrf.com.au
Story by Renée Capps and Genevieve Sanchez