Police Investigation: Patient enquiries

The Woolcock Clinic can confirm that NSW Police yesterday charged a former casual employee with a range of offences.

The former employee was a casual sleep study technician at the Woolcock Clinic and was not employed as a doctor. His employment has been terminated.

The Woolcock Clinic is deeply disturbed by the allegations and is cooperating fully with the police investigation.

Because the police investigation is ongoing, the Woolcock Clinic cannot make further comment at this time.

Fish Oil May Prevent Allergies in Kids: Study

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A popular food supplement linked to heart health may help protect your child from developing allergies, Australian research has revealed.

A study by the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, in collaboration with researchers from Imperial College London, found that amongst children who lived in higher traffic areas, those who took fish oil supplements in their first five years of life were less likely to develop allergies to common house dust mites. This is despite living in traffic-dense areas known to drive up allergy rates in young people.

“Our work is the first to suggest that taking fish oil supplements in childhood may have a protective effect against allergies for kids living in heavy traffic pollution areas where allergy rates can be higher,” explains Dr Christine Cowie, co-author of the study published in the journal Environmental Health. “While our work is preliminary, it’s very exciting to find a potential aid for parents keen to shield their children from developing common household allergies.”

House dust mites are microscopic parasites that are one of the most common triggers of allergic conditions globally, and particularly so in Australia. Many people with asthma, atopic eczema and allergic rhinitis are allergic, and this eight-legged arthropod is one of the worst offenders. Mites feed off dead skin cells from humans, and make their home in bedding, mattresses, carpets and upholstered furniture.

A recent study by the same team found that children exposed to higher traffic within 50 metres of their home were at greater risk of having house dust mite allergy. So the group, led by Professor Anna Hansell from Imperial College, London, set out to investigate whether fish oil, a commonly-used supplement, could help minimise the effects of traffic pollution on the risk of being allergic.

The team examined data collected from a long-running longitudinal study on asthma in children. This analysis looked at the childrens’ data at eight years of age, along with data on traffic density as a measure of exposure to traffic-related air pollution, and allergic responses, lung function, and reported asthma and rhinitis. Half of the children in the study had been randomly allocated to take regular fish oil (omega-3) supplements throughout the first five years of life.

“We found that, among children exposed to high traffic at home, those that hadn’t been allocated the fish oil supplements had a greater risk of being allergic to house dust mites at eight years of age than children who had been given them,” Dr Cowie explains. “Put simply, taking fish oil supplements early in life may protect you from developing house dust mite allergy, if you live in an area with higher traffic.”

The study is one of the first to examine the interactive effects of air pollution with fish oil supplementation. The results are important because they suggest simple protective measures that may protect against the effects of pollution. “It would be a wonderful discovery if parents could protect their children from this common allergy simply by taking a food supplement,” Dr Cowie says.

While the results are promising, the researcher cautioned against immediate action. “It’s certainly exciting but our findings need to be replicated in larger studies before we can advise parents to race out to the pharmacy,” she says.

The paper, Weighted Road Density and Allergic Disease in Children at High Risk of Developing Asthma, has been published in Environmental Health. To view, visit https://ehjournal-biomedcentral-com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/articles/10.1186/s12940-018-0370-5

Lifesaving Tuberculosis Project Shortlisted for Top Science Gong

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An innovative screening program that is transforming the global fight against tuberculosis (TB) has been shortlisted for one of Australia’s most prestigious science awards.

The project led by Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, is a finalist for the 2018 Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research.

The Act Now for Tuberculosis Control Team, made up of researchers from both the University of NSW and University of Sydney, is testing innovative screening approaches that promise to help eliminate the killer disease.

“Ten million people a year develop tuberculosis, one in three of whom are not diagnosed,” says Woolcock researcher Professor Guy Marks. “We believe that using existing tools, including some newly developed technologies, in new and better ways can make a big impact on this disease.”

Many people believe that we have already conquered tuberculosis because it is not common in Australia. However, globally, it is the leading infectious cause of death. It is a major problem in many low and middle income countries, including many of our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region. The Act Now team has been working in collaboration with colleagues in one of those countries, Vietnam, for over a decade.

So far the researchers have screened more than 100,000 local people for TB in Vietnam. “We’ve taken innovative tuberculosis screening approaches developed through our own robustly-designed clinical trials and applied them at the grassroots, screening people who share households with tuberculosis patients,” explains Professor Marks. “These are people who are at very high risk of getting TB. By detecting TB early and referring them for treatment we are preventing the spread of TB and reducing the risk of death due to TB.”

Our findings promise to transform the approach prevention of TB in developing nations, he says.

The team is made up of Professor Marks and PhD student Jennifer Ho, both from University of NSW, and Professor Warwick Britton and Associate Professor Greg Fox from University of Sydney. 

The researchers say they feel privileged to be shortlisted for a Eureka Prize, an annual award to reward excellence in the fields of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement and school science. The winners will be announced on August 29.

TB: The Facts

  • Tuberculosis is a curable bacterial infection that is spread through inhaling tiny droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person

  • Despite being preventable and curable, TB is common and deadly, particularly in poor countries

  • Every year, nine million develop TB, including 500,000 children. A further 1.8 million die from it

  • The World Health Organization says the death toll from the disease is still unacceptably high and efforts to combat it must be accelerated

Asthma Home Monitoring Study

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Asthmatics could soon be monitoring their wheeze from the comfort of home thanks to a high-tech gadget that may guard against asthma attacks.

Lung specialists at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney are testing whether it's possible for the tens of thousands of Australians with the common lung condition to self-monitor their symptoms using a device and the internet.

If successful, the system will change the way asthma is managed by providing patients with an early warning of flare-ups before they wind up in the hospital emergency department.

“People with asthma currently have no good tool to alert them to worsening symptoms,” says chief investigator Dr Cindy Thamrin. “Sadly that means many of Australia’s asthmatics get no warnings and wind up seeking urgent hospital care at the last minute.”

“Just like the finger prick test changed life for diabetics, our technology has the potential to revolutionise respiratory care by ensuring people know what is happening to their condition and how to keep them themselves safe," Dr Thamrin says.

More than two million Australians have asthma, a chronic lung condition that inflames and narrows the airways, causing wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing. The causes are still not well understood, but triggers are known to include viral infections, exercise, and exposure to allergens and irritants.

Woolcock research shows asthma remains poorly controlled for 45 per cent of Australians with the condition, and nearly 30 per cent of sufferers required urgent asthma healthcare in the previous year. 

“The current approach in Australia is asthma self-management, with an action plan that helps patients recognise when their symptoms are worsening,” explains Dr Thamrin. “The problem is only one in four patients have an action plan and, on top of this, plans don’t always work because they’re based a patient’s own, often unreliable recall and perception of symptoms.”

Woolcock researchers hope to change the status quo with their state-of-the-art, mobile internet-connected device which patients use to monitor their lung function each day. This simple breathing test takes 1-2 minutes and will give vital information about the person's quality of life and whether a flare-up in symptoms might be on the horizon.

Dr Thamrin, working with engineers in Milan, Italy, is recruiting asthma patients in Sydney who will have their conditions monitored with daily at-home tests over six months. Those recruited will get monitoring as they use their own standard preventer treatment.

The device will use gentle sound waves to probe the lungs as patients breathe. The breathing data will be uploaded automatically to the cloud, and compared with the patient’s daily symptoms. "We hope to be able to identify the trigger point for when an increase in medication is required or a visit to their GP," Dr Thamrin says. "In future, either the patient or the GP will receive an alarm if their breathing data suggest they’re about to have a flare-up."

The challenge for the researchers will be maximising detection while minimising false alarms, she says.

Involvement comes with benefits for patients, who will each receive a detailed assessment of their lung function. "As well as the opportunity to monitor their health, those involved get to be part of an exciting trial that, all going well, will revolutionise management of a notoriously hard to manage condition," Dr Thamrin says.

Volunteers must aged over 18, have diagnosed asthma and currently treated regularly with preventer medication. You’ll be required to breathe into a simple device once daily at home for six months. You’ll also need to attend 2-3 one-hour clinic appointments either at the Woolcock’s Glebe headquarters, Concord Hospital or Royal North Shore Hospital. You will be reimbursed for your time attending clinic sessions.

If you are interested, talk to your doctor or contact one of the study investigators at 02 9114 0146 or asthma@woolcock.org.au.

Woolcock Centre for Lung Cancer Research

We would like to thank everyone who attended the launch of the Woolcock Centre for Lung Cancer Research on Wednesday, 18 April 2018. The event, held at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Glebe, was officially opened by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard.