Women with IMPACT

From discovering that the incidence of osteoporosis and osteopenia, a potential precursor to osteoporosis, in Australians was far higher than previously thought, to the creation of an entirely new field of study in mental health, IMPACT’s researchers are having a measurable effect on the health of local, national and international communities.

Based at Barwon Health, at the centre of Geelong’s clinical health precinct, IMPACT’s 35 researchers and students, 28 of whom are women, take an integrated approach to their research, according to Deputy Director Professor Julie Pasco.

“We cover the epidemiological and clinical side of health research and work closely with Deakin’s Metabolic Research Unit for our laboratory-based studies and with the Centre for Pattern Recognition and Data Analytics to analyse information from hospital databases,” Prof Pasco said.

“We’re also involved in policy development, helping to translate research into practice through the development of research-informed guidelines and recommendations.”

Prof Pasco said Deakin’s longstanding collaboration with the University Hospital Geelong (Barwon Health) has been critical to IMPACT’s clinical studies.

“A great advantage of being based at Barwon Health is our proximity to the hospital. It’s a vital research-clinical practice interface,” she said.

Prof Pasco also directs the Epi-Centre for Healthy Ageing, a research centre within IMPACT that identifies early warning signs for chronic disease. At the heart of the centre is the Geelong Osteoporosis Study (GOS), a unique longitudinal population study originally established to investigate the pattern of osteoporosis in the general population and to identify risk factors for fracture.

One of IMPACT’s most far-reaching and collaborative projects, the GOS has collected data over more than two decades. GOS data and subjects have contributed to many IMPACT projects in local and international studies on a range of health conditions from musculoskeletal disorders, obesity and diabetes, to mental health.

The GOS study began in the mid-1990s with 1500 women selected randomly from local electoral rolls. A male cohort was recruited from 2001. The same groups of men and women are recalled every two or five years to undergo bone density tests and other clinical examinations.

Of the many positive outcomes of this research, Prof Pasco and her GOS team revealed that low vitamin D levels were common in the general population during winter-time, even in our temperate climate. The team also discovered that beta-blockers, a class of medications used to treat cardiac arrhythmias and hypertension, reduce the risk of fracture partly by increasing bone density, thereby supporting data from animal models that bone metabolism is modulated by the adrenergic nervous system. These findings identified targets for medication and lifestyle interventions to improve population health and wellbeing.

Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Kara Holloway, working with Prof Pasco’s team and international collaborators, is trialling a new portable device for assessing how well bone can resist the spread of micro-cracks. The GOS is the first study in the world to use this technology in a large population-based cohort to determine the device’s clinical utility for identifying patients at risk for fracture.

“GOS has grown into a huge platform for many interconnected research topics,” Dr Holloway explained.

“Working on a study of this size for such a length of time is a wonderful opportunity to witness how patterns of disease change through the years, to work on a range of projects with different collaborators and to see how the involvement of talented students can broaden the utility of the data.”

IMPACT Associate Professor Lana Williams and Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Brisa Fernandes made use of GOS data in their breakthrough discovery that a common blood pressure drug has the potential to improve mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and major depression.

The team was amongst the first in the world to find that Angiotensin Converting Enzyme inhibitors, or ACE inhibitors, typically used to treat hypertension, had the unexpected benefit of substantially preventing the onset of depression in the general population. If replicated by follow-up research, this finding could offer relief for thousands of people around the world for whom current treatments, such as antidepressants, are ineffective.

Another area of study involving global collaboration is the work undertaken by Prof Felice Jacka and her team at the Food and Mood Centre, another research centre within IMPACT.

Prof Jacka, who is founder and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research, pioneered research into how diet and other lifestyle factors interact with an individual’s risk for mental health problems. Her relatively new, highly multidisciplinary field of nutritional psychiatry found its roots in data generated by the GOS and the field is now rapidly developing, attracting researchers in nutrition, mental health, population health and epidemiology from around the world.

For Prof Jacka and her team at the Food and Mood Centre, the ultimate aim is to develop evidence-based public health messages for the primary prevention of common mental health disorders, and new, nutrition-focused treatment strategies to improve mental health. Their work has already provided proof that improving diet quality can treat major depression, indicating the benefits of adding clinical dietitians to mental health care teams and making dietitian support available to those experiencing depression. This trial (SMILES) made headlines across the world.

“The imperative for such a new approach to the global burden of mental disorders is clear and urgent,” Prof Jacka said. “This critical new understanding that diet is relevant to mental health now underpins a new way of conceptualising and approaching mental disorder prevention and treatment.”

Social media aids knowledge exchange

Twenty-first century research relies on collaboration within and between research centres in Australia and overseas to achieve beneficial outcomes. Over the past decade, social media has begun to play a large role in facilitating this exchange of knowledge.

“Researchers are increasingly aware of the need to share their success through social media because they recognise their research outcomes and publications are now considered much more broadly. Not only does it involve traditional metrics of publications and grants, but it is also demonstrated by how much attention their work has attracted in the media and how often it is talked about online,” said Prof Julie Pasco.

“These are important new metrics on the academic scene and the ease of global networking facilitated by social media is all part of this. It’s useful not just for sharing ideas, but for stimulating new ideas, and comparing and contrasting results from different studies.”

The growth of social media is not the only thing that has changed in academia during Prof Pasco’s career.

“While navigating a pathway through academia and health research has always been, and continues to be, a challenge for women researchers, there is now an awareness of a greater need to understand issues faced by women in particular,” she said.

“Today, as barriers to career progression are being recognised and managed, women in leadership roles are more readily accepted, and the proven success of women in senior roles paves the way for other women to follow.”

Prof Pasco said IMPACT’s training and research program was enriched by postgraduate students and early career researchers, who were encouraged to work closely with academic staff to develop sound research practices and extend their expertise.

“Fifteen of our sixteen current PhD students, all three Honours students and four of our five early career researchers are women. They have a passion for expanding their knowledge and skills and they bring fresh ideas and techniques to our work of developing practical solutions to the health issues affecting our community,” Prof Pasco said.

“That’s why it’s so important for those of us in senior roles to work tirelessly to provide opportunities and experiences that inspire them to become tomorrow’s research leaders.”