Zelman Cowen Prize awarded for cystic fibrosis study

23 August 2006

Mark Elkins receives the Zelman Cowen Award from the Vice-Chancellor
Mark Elkins receives the Zelman Cowen Award from the Vice-Chancellor

Doctoral candidate Mark Elkins has been presented with the inaugural Sir Zelman Cowan Prize for a medical study confirming the value of a saline solution treatment for cystic fibrosis patients.

His successful coordination of a national, long-term, randomised trial - involving 16 tertiary hospitals and 164 patients - has confirmed that the treatment works and offers hope of a better quality of life for patients.

The therapy involves inhaling hypertonic saline solution through a nebuliser, reducing the recurring complications of the disease, and improving the length and quality of life for sufferers.

"The results of our trial were revolutionary," said Mark, from the University's Department of Respiratory Medicine. "We saw a 5 per cent improvement in lung function, a major reduction in the number of acute lung flare-ups and therefore fewer antibiotics needed to treat them, and fewer days off from school or work due to illness."

Details of the trial have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The trial was the culmination of a decade of research overseen by Professor Peter Bye from the Faculty of Medicine.

Cystic fibrosis is a life-impairing, genetically inherited disease that is usually diagnosed at birth or during childhood. "Although it affects multiple body organs, the lungs are almost always the worst affected," said Mark. "Patients die early, and 95 per cent of the time it's due to respiratory failure because the lungs get overwhelmed by the disease. This new treatment directly works on clearing the mucus from the lungs."

Mark developed an interest in cystic fibrosis through his work as a physiotherapist, with the majority of his clinical case-load involving cystic fibrosis patients. It used to be considered a paediatric disease, which claimed lives in childhood. Now, the average age at death has risen to around 30, thanks to improvements in medical treatments.

The $5,000 award was presented to Mr Elkins by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Professor Gavin Brown.

The Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund, set up in honour of the former goverrnor general,supports medical and scientific research at the University of Sydney and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Further information is available at the Sir Zelman Cowen Fund website.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3720