Young award winner helps to improve the lives of Cystic Fibrosis sufferers

30 March 2006

An effective low-cost treatment for Cystic Fibrosis sufferers has won the young University of Sydney scientist who established the treatment the inaugural Sir Zelman Cowen University Fund Prize for Discovery in Medical Research, which will be presented later this year.
Cystic Fibrosis is a chronic, genetic, inherited disease that is usually diagnosed during childhood. It is difficult to treat, attacking many of the body’s vital organs. Patients tend to die early, and 95 per cent of the time this is due to respiratory complications.
Mark Elkins, a PhD student in the Faculty of Medicine, won the $5,000 prize for a long-term trial establishing the novel therapy which uses hypertonic saline solution (a sterile solution of ordinary salt, but at a higher concentration than found in body cells), inhaled through a nebuliser. Administered twice daily over an extended period, the therapy reduces the frequency of flare-ups of the chronic lung infection and improves lung function. This improves quality of life and suggests a strong potential to increase life span. It is low cost and easy for the patient to administer. This major trial has recently been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
As a physiotherapist Mark developed a personal interest in the treatment of Cystic Fibrosis through his close contact with patients with the majority of his clinical caseload involving sufferers. It was the close personal relationships he developed with these patients, and the experience he gained of their battle with the disease, that drove him to investigate the new treatment.
Cystic Fibrosis used to be considered as a paediatric disease but now the average age at death is around 30, thanks to the development of life-sustaining treatments. Many experts in the field point to treatments aimed at the respiratory system as the key to preventing early deaths.
The results of our trial were revolutionary, said Mark. We saw a sustained improvement in lung function, a major reduction in the number of acute lung flare-ups, a reduced need for antibiotics to treat the flare-ups, and fewer days off school or work due to illness, he said.
 The Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund established this award to recognise discovery in medical research by scientists under 40 years of age who have made a major contribution to the understanding or treatment of disease. The Sydney-based Fund was established over 25 years ago to support medical & scientific research at the University of Sydney and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The award will be presented in alternate years at the University of Sydney and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The trial is the culmination of a decade of research overseen by Associate Professor Peter Bye from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney. Co-incidentally, it was in Jerusalem at the XIIth International Cystic Fibrosis Congress in 1996 that Professor Bye made one of the earliest presentations of the concept behind hypertonic saline.
More information about the Prize and the work of the Fund can be found at the Fund's website, or by contacting the Fund's office on 9351 6558.

Contact: Jake O'Shaughnessy

Phone: +61 2 9351 4312 or 0421 617 861