Institute Celebrates Trailblazing Women Scientists

Australia’s top respiratory health institute will mark International Women’s Day with a lecture from one of the world’s most esteemed women scientists in honour of its own celebrated female founder.

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney has invited world-leading respiratory physician Dirkje Postma, Professor of Pathophysiology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, to speak on March 8.

The Ann Woolcock Lecture commemorates the institute’s own trailblazing female founder, whose work revolutionised asthma treatment worldwide. With four women on its board and a female director at its helm, the Woolcock has shown it’s serious about nurturing and promoting women in science.

“We’re excited to be able to host such an eminent female researcher at the Woolcock on such important occasion as International Women’s Day,” Executive Director Professor Carol Armour says.

“Like our own Ann Woolcock, Dirkje Postma enjoys international recognition as a scientist who revolutionised our understanding of respiratory illnesses and how to treat them. Thanks to their work, and the work of a growing number of influential women scientists around the world, we’re closer than ever to beating these diseases.”

Professor Postma will use the lecture to talk about exciting developments in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, the generic term for a number of lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis that cause coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

The disease affects 14 per cent of Australians aged 40 or over, and 29 per cent of those aged 75 or over.[i] There is no cure and while cigarettes are recognised as a key trigger, one in five patients have never smoked.

Professor Postma will detail exciting new developments in the field that are revealing just how complex the condition is. Far from a simple ‘smoker’s disease’, COPD can also be triggered by chemical exposure, premature birth, genetics, ageing, or a combination of these factors. She will explain how this deeper understanding of COPD and its many faces will pave the way to personalised treatment that better suits the individual patient’s disease history.

“To consider a time when patients with COPD will get tailored care specific to their disease is exciting indeed,” Professor Armour. “It heralds the beginning of better, faster, more effective treatment that helps sufferers retain good quality of life for longer.”

The Ann Woolcock Lecture series honours the contribution of Professor Woolcock to the research community. Invited researchers share their ideas with industry, policy makers, fellow academics, doctors, specialists and patients with a view to prompting new collaborations to improve respiratory health.

The lecture, COPD: A Disease With Many Faces, will be held on Wednesday, 8 March at 5.30pm, at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research headquarters in Glebe, Sydney. RSVP to or phone 02 9114 0408.

[i] Toelle, B. G., Xuan, W., Bird, T. E., Abramson, M. J., Atkinson, D. N., Burton, D. L., James, A. L., Jenkins, C. R., Johns, D. P., Maguire, G. P., Musk, A. W., Walters, E., Wood-Baker, R., Hunter, M. L., Graham, B. J., Southwell, P. J., Vollmer, W. M., Buist, A., & Marks, G. B. (2013). Respiratory symptoms and illness in older Australians: The Burden of obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD) study. Medical Journal of Australia, 198(3), 144-148.

Mild Asthma Study



Do you have mild asthma and are using mainly a blue reliever? 

A new inhaler for mild asthma is being tested at the Woolcock Institute. 

  • Free inhalers, lung function tests and assessment of your asthma 
  • You will be reimbursed for study visits 

Do you want to participate in this study?

Click here to register online.


For more information about this study click here.

Daily Puff Protects Mild Asthmatics from Deadly Wheeze

Hundreds of thousands of Australians with mild asthma could halve their risk of a severe flare up with a low-dose daily puffer, a ground-breaking new analysis has found.

Work led by Sydney’s Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and published in the prestigious international medical journal The Lancet, is challenging the long-standing assumption that it’s okay to leave mild asthma untreated.

The study found that people experiencing asthma symptoms less than two times a week can halt lung decline and protect themselves from asthma attacks and severe wheezing by taking low dose preventer medication every day. “The benefits were seen even in people with very infrequent symptoms, once a week or less, suggesting there is a lot to gain from getting even the mildest of asthma sufferers onto treatment,” says study leader Professor Helen Reddel.

About a million Australians have mild asthma but most are not being treated according to the national guidelines which recommend they use a preventer inhaler every day, even when they have no symptoms. Instead, most of these people resort to reliever-only medication – the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ solution – which leaves their condition poorly managed.

Without their condition in check, sadly many adults with mild asthma end up in hospital with an attack they could have prevented, and some of these attacks can be fatal,” Professor Reddel says.  

Woolcock researchers set out to investigate whether people with mild asthma could benefit from daily low dose preventer medication. They analysed the results of the randomized inhaled Steroid Treatment As Regular Therapy (START) which assessed outcomes for 7,138 mild asthma patients.

Half were given the once-daily anti-inflammatory treatment budesonide, or Pulmicort, while the remainder took a placebo puffer. Results showed that over three years, Pulmicort halved the risk of severe flare-ups, reduced lung function decline, and improved symptom control. “These results are strong enough to be recommending that even those with the mildest form of asthma start taking a low dose medication every day,” the researcher says.

But the solution is not that simple. Professor Reddel highlights that people with asthma who have few symptoms are reluctant to take daily medication, and GPs are often not keen to prescribe it, largely because many don’t understand how dangerous mild asthma can be. This was seen dramatically in the epidemic of thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne last year.

With this in mind, Professor Reddel and her team have set to work testing an ‘on demand’ inhaler treatment called Symbicort, currently prescribed for patients with moderate or severe asthma, that can be used when symptoms appear. This study, called Novel START, is in still in recruitment phase in New Zealand, Australia, Italy and the United Kingdom, but if successful, it could change the way the respiratory disease is treated worldwide.

Both studies are fully funded by AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of both Symbicort and Pulmicort, but both studies were initiated by external researchers.

Our new results show how preventer medication can benefit even mild asthma, leaving us more driven than ever to find an effective as-ended treatment that patients will actually use.”

People with mild asthma should talk to their GP about trying a low dose preventer treatment, and make sure that they have a written asthma action plan. People in Sydney and Newcastle who are using only a blue reliever inhaler can volunteer to help the Woolcock team investigate an alternative way of managing their mild asthma.

To volunteer for the Novel START study please click here to register online.

Click here to find out more about this study. 

About Mild Asthma

  • Two million Australians - one in ten – have asthma, and about half have a mild form of the condition.
  • Those with mild asthma develop symptoms, like wheezing, cough or breathlessness, from time to time, for instance, when they have a cold, when they exercise, or during hay fever season.
  • About one third of people presenting to Emergency Departments with severe asthma flare-ups report having symptoms less than weekly in the previous 3 months.