We are delivering – Snapshot four

We are delivering: Research quality and quantity

  • Our output of around 800 scientific papers published in 2016 was the highest ever and has more than doubled in the past 10 years (to more than two papers per day).
  • There was a 10-fold increase in citations of our papers by researchers worldwide in the past 10 years (indicating the quality of our papers as judged by other researchers).
  • Average h-Index (an integrated measure of quality and quantity of a scientist’s output) of our Faculty is 42 (considered to be outstanding).
  • 28 of our researchers have had a publication that has been cited more than 1,000 times.

We are delivering: Research that is translated

  • There are 17 ongoing clinical trials based on our work and led by QIMR Berghofer researchers (in all four programs Cancer, Infectious Diseases, Mental health and Chronic Disorders).
  • Our researchers were involved in 35 third-party-sponsored ongoing clinical trials.
  • 47% of our research projects have moved forward from the discovery phase closer to translation.
  • We wholly own the clinical trials company, Q-Pharm.

We are delivering: Economic value

We are delivering: Star researchers

We are delivering: Directly to the community

  • We hosted over 1,000 high school students in our Education laboratory.
  • We presented to more than 1,000 students throughout Queensland as part of our regional outreach program.
  • We provided tours of the Institute and talks to almost 4,000 people.
  • We were active participants in the World Science Festival and the Guinness World Records largest ever practical science lesson.

Thanks to support from our donors and Queensland Health. As you can see, WE ARE DELIVERING.

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute


A cameo week

Last week was one where a number of events occurred which illustrated the diversity of work and the activities at QIMR Berghofer. It started with my return from India following a scientific meeting, which is part of our Asian Strategy, and discussions with a major pharmaceutical company, which is part of our commercialisation strategy.  On Monday I attended meetings where the potential collaborations between the institute and others worldwide in the US led Moonshot Cancer Program started the day and continued with discussions with a team from BGI, the Chinese genomics company.

On Tuesday the Deputy Premier, the Minister for Health and another Minister attended a press conference to announce an agreement which establishes the BGI Headquarters in Australia within our building. This will be the start of an interesting phase of interactions with this very significant company.  The Minister for Science, Information Technology and Innovation then hosted an event to witness the formal signing of the agreement with BGI.

Almost simultaneously a very significant paper from Michelle Wykes from the Institute was published in a top ranked scientific journal; Immunity.  This describes a new immune checkpoint player. Interestingly, its discovery came from her work on malaria infection and included collaboration with James McCarthy who is carrying out human challenge studies where his team injects live malaria parasites into volunteers at our clinical trials company, Q-Pharm, then tests new drugs for consideration from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Medicines for Malaria Venture).

Michelle Wykes’ work holds great promise for the future. Molecules such as the one she described are already in the clinic and make a major indent on melanomas.  However, the drugs on the market do not work on every cancer or on every individual with melanoma so new therapies are needed and we continue to work with Michelle on that in our recently established SEEDBox®.

In another development during the week, we announced the outcome of the research carried out by Stuart MacGregor and colleagues worldwide on oesophageal cancer, identifying new genes that contribute to the onset of this cancer and again opening up pathways for future treatments.

A little earlier than this, my article on the impact of Brexit and researchers was published in EMBO Reports. To cap the week off I attended the Bangara dance performance which celebrates through dance and music the history and role of the indigenous people in Australia.

This was not quite a typical week but one that illustrates how research at QIMR Berhofer is giving rise to practical outcomes, how our commercialisation policies are kicking in, how our links with Asia are consolidating and how in the midst of all of that, it is possible to have balance and interesting life outside of work.

We are delivering – Snap shot three

WE ARE DELIVERING: relevant discovery research

Our scientists:

  • Presented a paper on ‘The economics of skin cancer prevention’ to the World Health Organization.
  • Developed a mouse model to study Zika virus.
  • Described the genetic differences between those that have Barrett’s oesophageus and develop oesophageal cancer and those that don’t get the cancer.
  • Published information on genes associated with the risk of endometrial cancer.
  • Provided the first description of the anti-metastatic (prevention of secondaries) potential of the cancer immunotherapy we have developed.

WE ARE DELIVERING: research with practical consequences for the community

  • We developed and launched a personal skin cancer risk prediction tool for doctors and patients which can be delivered over the web.
    > Try the skin cancer risk prediction tool
  • We showed that melanoma rates in Australia are declining (a world first). Our recommendations for many years have been followed and are effective.
  • We have entered into an agreement to license technology that will help clinicians define the best treatment for pre-term babies who often have reduced oxygen levels in their blood.
  • Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research program provides lectures in Cairns, Toowoomba and Rockhampton, with more locations planned for later this year. To date more than 1,200 students have been introduced to science and scientists from the Institute, and this number is growing annually.

WE ARE DELIVERING: progressive policies

  • We have introduced a novel ‘Entrepreneurs’ Leave of Absence’ policy to remove barriers for those that wish to take a temporary step away from the Institute and into a biotechnology company.
  • To help retain female researchers after maternity, we now provide financial support to allow them to balance their family/work demands, for instance by hiring a babysitter. We have a very high proportion of women in lead research positions (35%) and 53% of new faculty appointments in the last 5 years were women, but we want them and us to do better.

WE ARE DELIVERING: new ways of promoting commercialising research

  • We have established The SEED Box® (Scientific Exploitation and Entrepreneurial Development) to nurture and mature promising commercial projects.
  • CSL have joined us to identify, manage and support our Proof of Concept proposals.

Thanks to support from our donors and Queensland Health. As you can see, WE ARE DELIVERING.

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

A formula for Formula 1

Not all would know that I am a keen follower of Formula 1 car racing.  That goes back many years starting in the 70s when I went from Strasbourg to Hockenheim to attend the German Grand Prix there. As the cycles of life turned I ended up living close to Hockenheim in Heidelberg and renewed the contact with the sport. Over the years I have had the pleasure of attending the GPs in Melbourne, Silverstone, Monaco and Singapore so I watch with interest the evolution of the sport.

At the moment, with viewing drifting down apparently, the promoters feel the  need to shake things up and attract viewers for the qualifying day (and eventually the practice sessions) to make it an exciting weekend that culminates with the race itself. For those that are not close to F1, a qualifying session defines the order of the cars on the grid with the fastest cars at the front. The order of the cars is decided by the lap times in a special qualifying hour on the day before the race itself.

The promoters decided to  try to get things a bit more mixed up as last year qualifying produced the same sequence of cars that were fastest at almost every GP They produced an idea to alter the process that is too complicated to describe correctly in a paragraph, but basically the aim was to have  one car eliminated every 90 secs instead of having three 10+ minutes where cars were eliminated at the end of each stint and the order defined by their lap times.

The new system was tried in Australia and was a disaster.  Everybody said it was rubbish as the contest for positions never materialised, the last session ended four minutes before the allocated time, and the outcome was the same old same old. Team leaders agreed (unusual) to revert to the old system…but  10 days later that decision was overturned in the sort of back room dealing that highlighted the lack of transparency of the sport.

So there will be no “shake up” of the grid and unless things change when the experiment is repeated in Bahrain next week the qualifying process will bring no extra excitement.

In the absence of a clear plan for the future I have outlined below my own suggestion. It has new elements and could make everybody get engaged. It covers the practice and the qualifying and has a new mini race.

In this plan

  1. The final grid is decided by computer making random selection. That will shake things up. See below in step 4 for a variation on this . Note that in horse racing the draw for the starting positions is standard and adds advantages and disadvantages that are part of that sport.
  2. Because of the process of computer selection, the qualifying session becomes irrelevant .So it will be replaced by a new 10 lap mini race  with no pit stops, with 1 car per team driven by the reserve drivers. That will showcase new talent. The scores (or perhaps 1/3)from this race will go to the constructors championship and a title will be given to the best driver at the end of the season
  3. The Practice will also be integrated into the new plan as the combined placing scores from P1,P2 and P3 will define the grid placings for the mini race. {An alternative would be to allow the best scores from 2 of the practice sessions-or randomly select one sessions for the ranking}
  4. The Practice sessions could also be used to give a ranking that could be converted into a score that would alter the random selection for the race proper. For example a car drawn 15th but that had been the top of the Practice sessions could get a 10 place advantage, second in the practice 9 place advantage etc.

Well those are my suggestions and I think they would change the inevitable grid ranking, add value to the Practice sessions (where frequently a car that is performing well does not convert that into the qualifying session), highlight reserve talent and new drivers and provide the fans with 2 different races (like Cricket tests and T20)

We are delivering – Snap shot two

WE ARE DELIVERING: Quality Research

  • Three of our researchers are in the world’s top 1% Cited Authors in 2015
  • We received two Research Excellence Awards from the NHMRC
  • The World Congress of Psychiatrics selected one of our researchers for their Young Investigator Award 2015
  • 27 of our researchers have had a research paper that has been cited more than 1000 times

WE ARE DELIVERING: Relevant Research

  • 70 per cent of our teams have direct collaborations with clinicians
  • 50 per cent of our research is in Disease Oriented Discovery and 50 per cent is further along the path to translation
  • We recently collected the first brain images from the Herston Imaging Research Facility (established in collaboration with UQ, QUT and Metro North HSS)

WE ARE DELIVERING: Competitive Research

  • We were ranked second of all institutes and universities in Queensland and second in Australia for research funds awarded to institutes by the NHMRC to medical research
  • We provided four of the 10 named investigators from Queensland on the successful application by the Australian Genome Health Alliance

WE ARE DELIVERING: Translated Research

  • We published an extensive series of papers that showed how lifestyle choices are responsible for 37,000 new cases of cancer in Australia every year
  • We signed a very significant agreement with Atara Bio-therapeutics to deliver more immunotherapy solutions for a range of diseases. This follows an earlier major agreement with Bristol Myers Squibb for the application of other forms of immunotherapy
  • We launched a new immunotherapy trial for the treatment of glioblastomas (brain cancer)

Thanks to support from our donors and Queensland Health. As you can see, WE ARE DELIVERING


Interesting Week for Innovation

The analysis of the weakness in the Australian system in converting excellent research to economic benefit has been aired repeatedly over the last months.  Something has to be done about it and it is refreshing that a significant document was released by the Prime Minister on Monday addressing, in a holistic manner, various steps that can be taken, and hopefully will be taken, to pump up Australia’s performance in innovation.  In a recent blog I pointed to the dangers of excess pressure on moving away from the foundations of research-driven innovation. In this piece I would like to stress the real need to get better value from the investments that are being made at the federal and state levels.

The wealth of a nation ultimately depends on 3 major components as defined by the OECD in various studies: (1) its natural wealth (e.g. resources), (2) the utilisation of the natural resources (e.g. agriculture), and (3) generation of wealth from brain power.  Brain power does not mean PhD-driven research, it means all applications of intelligence by all members of society.  Australia has been very lucky to have great strengths in the first 2 categories and perhaps because of that has overlooked the third.  By converting the raw material that has been shown in research outputs, for example, there is a real opportunity for Australia to advance its economy even more than in its current healthy position.

The culture of innovation has to permeate right through the system, however.  Innovation is not compatible with excessive demands for totally non-productive administrative actions.  Government will have to accept this and in the process achieve one of its often stated goals of reducing red tape.  Delays in decision-making while every detail is covered can have a dampening effect on innovation and productivity.

Indeed, productivity is at the heart of the innovation initiatives as it really means getting from the system much more than it is at present. A great opportunity to increase productivity is to increase the conversion of discovery into economic benefit.  To address this gap the culture will have to be changed and a number of the measures that are outlined in the National Innovation and Science Agenda will do that and QIMR Berghofer looks forward to participating fully in this process.

However, it is not just at the federal level that innovation is receiving attention.  In Queensland, the Advanced Queensland plan has been rolled out over the last number of months ahead of NISA.  Perhaps not surprisingly ,the two plans align almost completely: the analysis of what needs to be done has been clear for some time and it is great that some actions are being taken to address these gaps.  As a member of the Advance Queensland Expert Panel, I attended the first formal meeting of that panel this week and heard of the progress in the operation of the multi-faceted program and also was part of discussions on many related topics.  It is up and running and hopefully NISA will be implemented with equal vigour.

It would appear that, subject to analysing all of the details which will emerge, the government has now put in place a pathway towards a new component of the Australian economy and we all have the responsibility to join in and do so.

This is a story about Australia but obviously it is one that is global with each country at a different stage of realising that the real riches of the future for society and the economy lies in the space above our shoulders.

Shaker of Trees or Counter of Leaves

I was a member of an interview panel recently.  As frequently occurs on those panels, the first question prior to seeing the candidates was ‘What are we looking for?’.  That’s when I came up with the aphorism ‘Are we looking for a shaker of trees or a counter of leaves?’.

For many positions the easy response is to say that we are looking for a shaker of trees, somebody who would shakes things up. But of course shaking things up does not mean getting things done.  So the shakers of trees although necessary are not sufficient.  Similarly if we look for a counter of leaves then that may ensure that everything is accounted for but does not necessarily mean that there is any forward movement as a result.  In both instances the person who is merely a shaker of trees or who is a counter leaves would be inadequate in order to make a true contribution at an effective level in an organisation.  There must be follow through from shaking trees and there must be a purpose in the counting of leaves.

Interestingly, having put that categorization on the table, it became easier to identify an individual who would shake the trees and ensure that when things were stirred  up they would be in a position to carry that through to get a productive result from the change that they had initiated.