Early clue to asbestos disease gives hope
By Deborah Kennedy, News Interactive, August 16, 2004
MESOTHELIOMA is back in the media spotlight, with the ALP handing back political donations from James Hardie Constructions to victims, and the company itself agreeing to top up a compensation fund.
However, for Bruce Robinson, the asbestos-fibre-related disease is always at the forefront of his mind.
The 54-year-old Perth specialist, who was recently awarded the international Wagner Medal for his contribution to worldwide research into the disease, has spent the past 20 years searching for ways to detect the condition earlier and prevent its rapid, and ultimately lethal, spread.
Late last year, the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital researcher and his team helped to develop a method that could revolutionise the diagnosis of mesothelioma years before symptoms appear.
With the disease forming in the pleura, a hidden part of the lung, diagnosis is normally only possible after symptoms, such as breathlessness, have developed.
From there, the sufferer is usually dead within a year.
“Having some form of early blood test is very important for us,” Professor Robinson says.
In conjunction with researchers in Seattle, the professor and his team have isolated a soluble protein or marker that has the potential to indicate the presence of the disease years earlier.
“We have a number of patients in whom this marker went up between one and six years before they presented to the doctor,” Professor Robinson says.
“That is a clue to the possibility that we could use this as a screening test. I guess it’s the equivalent of women having mammograms for breast cancer.”
Although Western Australia has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world, there are at least 20,000 cases around the globe.
“In Australia and Europe, mesothelioma is more common than a lot of diseases we know about, such as brain tumours, bone cancer and liver cancer,” he says.
Inspired by stories from dying patients, Professor Robinson wrote a national bestseller called Fathering From The Fast Lane – a guide for busy dads.
The father of two boys and a girl is now penning a book about the special relationship between women and their fathers.
Professor Robinson, who travels the world lecturing in his field, began his mesothelioma research in 1984 after returning from working in England and the US, having graduated from the University of Western Australia in 1973.
“I only got into lung diseases because when I was in England it happened to be the first job that came up and I really enjoyed it,” he says.
“Then, when I got back to Perth in late 1984, I noticed something that was a bit frightening. What had been a rare disease for me as a medical student was becoming a very common disease at that time.”
A colleague asked Professor Robinson if he could apply the techniques he had learned overseas to researching the disease.
“I thought, on the one hand, here’s an opportunity but, on the other, I thought here’s a moral obligation.”
He says he’s also happy to have helped change the world medical profession’s negative focus on mesothelioma in Western Australia.
“Because we have created a world leading centre, they now think of hope, success and leadership,” he says.
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