Visonary future for health

The opening of the Charles Perkins Centre launches a new frontier in the fight against obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease.

By Michael Visontay

Image of the Charles Perkins Centre foyer

The foyer

The University’s Charles Perkins Centre opens its new research and education hub this semester, bringing together world-leading researchers from a broad spectrum of disciplines in its mission to combat diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

With a brand new building, an innovative academic strategy, and the appointment of more than a dozen new professorial chairs, the centre provides a visionary combination of cross disciplinary research and education. Its Academic Director, Professor Steve Simpson, says “Internationally, the model we have developed for the Charles Perkins Centre is unique. It is not a stand alone institute but rather serves to enable success across the University and its affiliates by providing new collaborative research and educational opportunities that cross disciplines and boundaries. The aim is to improve the health of individuals, communities and the nation.”

The centre is facilitating collaboration between researchers and practitioners in health and medicine with experts from many disciplines. These include arts and social sciences, architecture, business studies, education and social work, engineering and information technology, and the physical, life and environmental sciences.

“Tackling complex problems such as obesity and metabolic diseases requires many disciplines to work together,” says Simpson. “The Charles Perkins Centre will provide an environment where new perspectives can yield paradigm shifts in understanding and provide novel solutions.”

The centre has established 24 research project nodes to date, he says, and projects now underway provide a strong sense of the centre’s multi-disciplinary character. They include: a flagship Preconception, Pregnancy and Childhood Cohort Study which will investigate how parents’ lifestyles impact on their unborn child‘s life, and the development of digital apps and avatars for managing a healthy lifestyle. They also include a health literacy node which will help people understand how to communicate about their health and interpret medical information; a node dedicated to understanding the role of the community of microorganisms in the gut in health and disease, and a node to improve nutrition for Aboriginal communities.

Image of Professor Steve Simpson

Professor Steve Simpson

Professor Simpson says the centre is also developing new educational programs, both for students and health professionals. The centre is planning a new award program in the area of health technology innovation. “It’s the first in a series of many,” says Simpson.

The vision and ambition of the Charles Perkins Centre has been recognised by external donors, who have contributed
$60 million so far to support the appointment of the Chairs who will help lead its research: $20 million from a Picasso painting donation, $15 million from an endowment by Elwin à Beckett (see story on page 38), $15 million from medical devices company ResMed, $5 million from the Australian Diabetes Council and $5 million from the Janet Dora Hine Bequest.

Although the CPC has its research and education hub in a brand new building, whose shimmering metal and stone façade has become a landmark of the lower campus at Camperdown, Professor Simpson emphasises that the centre “is a community, not a building. Whereas the building on central campus is a research and education hub,” he explains, “the Charles Perkins Centre is by no means limited to this one building. Our researchers will also be located across the campuses of the University and at our clinical schools and affiliates. For example, we already have Charles Perkins Centre Nepean and are soon to launch Broken Hill. Plans for Westmead are being developed.”

Teaching began in the new building at the start of Semester One, and during the year ahead, some 500 researchers from other locations in the university will move into the building, along with the new Chairs and their teams and colleagues from the Centenary Institute and the Heart Research Institute.

Image of exterior of the Charles Perkins Centre

Exterior of the CPC

The new building features numerous innovative features, including an initiative to have researchers sharing open-plan spaces rather than have traditional offices. For example, Professor Simpson has forgone an office to work in open-plan. The idea is to optimise the cross-fertilisation of ideas between researchers, and between researchers and students.

“In a traditional biomedical research centre, you would have one floor for diabetes, another for obesity, and a third for cardiovascular disease,” he says.

“You would have only PhD students, no undergraduates taught in the building.”

A world-class feature of the building is the X-Lab, a 240-seat teaching laboratory which allows up to eight lab classes to be held at the same time. Simpson says: “the X-Lab is the best in the world. We have visited other, super labs in the US/UK and improved their design, and incorporated world-leading technology.”

“We have set up the conditions for harvesting both deliberate, and haphazard cross-pollination of ideas.”

There are also fabulous computing and microscopy labs, beautifully designed break-out spaces and numerous seminar rooms, as well as a 360-seat auditorium for lectures and public talks. “By having undergraduate students being taught in the building we have set up the conditions for harvesting brilliant young minds from the outset and engaging them in the work of the centre,” he adds.

There will also be high-end infrastructure housed in the building, including University Core Research platforms for human and preclinical imaging, cellular imaging, cytometry, and proteomics, as well as the Clinical Research Facility. It will generate new clinical research opportunities in partnership with the Sydney Local Health District and colleagues in other districts and clinical schools.

Research chair appointments

Appointments to date include:

Professor David James: Leonard P Ullmann Chair in Systems Biology (Faculties of Science (School of Molecular Bioscience) and Medicine).

Professor David Raubenheimer: Leonard P Ullmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology (Faculties of Science (School of Biological Science) and Veterinary Science).

Professor Lisa Bero: Chair in Medicines Use and Health Outcomes (Faculty of Pharmacy).

Professor Charles Mackay: Australian Diabetes Council Chair (Faculty of Medicine).

Professor John Cawley: Visiting Professorship in the Economics of Obesity (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (School of Economics), also based at Cornell University).

Associate Professor Emmanuel (Manos) Stamatakis: Chair in Health Exercise and Physical Activity (Faculty of Health Sciences).

Professor Robyn Gallagher: Chair in Nursing (Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery)

Professor Shaun Jackson: leader of Cardiovascular Research, Heart Research Institute and Charles Perkins Centre (HRI and Faculty of Medicine).

Other appointments in the near future will include two more Leonard P Ullmann Chairs (in Psychology and Obesity Science), the à Beckett Chair in Gut Health, and the Res Med Chairs in Biomedical Engineering and in Sleep-Disordered Breathing & Chronic Disease Management.