Business & invest,
Industry sectors,

Precinct shines bright beyond the COVID horizon

Kathy Kruger | September 2, 2020

The Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct (GCHKP) was spotlighted from the earliest days of the pandemic as some of Australia’s first COVID-19 patients were treated at the Gold Coast University Hospital (GCUH) and clinicians, researchers and innovators have been stepping up to the pandemic plate ever since.

Amongst that massive effort, data scientists and clinicians are racing to develop a precision medicine data platform to help the sickest of COVID-19 patients survive.

The Early Response

January 30, a COVID ‘decade’ ago, news was breaking of Queensland’s first case of what we then referred to simply as Coronavirus. A 44-year-old Chinese man had been hospitalised, along with eight others in his tour group from the source epicentre of Wuhan. Within days, four had tested positive. All have since recovered.

Fast-forward 6 weeks (or a COVID ‘year’), to March 12, and Hollywood arrived at the hospital as Elvis left the building – legendary actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson were admitted to hospital after falling ill while he was filming the Baz Luhrmann Elvis Presley biopic at the Gold Coast’s Village Roadshow Studios. They became the world’s first celebrity cases and praised the care they received, as filming was suspended and both the movie and real world locked down.

Among the healthcare heroes at GCUH are hundreds of Griffith University trained nurses, graduates of the nursing and midwifery program that is ranked number one in Australia, and number two in the world.

Renal nurse Katherine Li is Griffith trained – on the night of 29 January she left her shift and stepped into the fray to provide translation at the side of Dr John Gerrard, long-time Director of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, as they worked to calm the frightened Chinese patients who’d been placed in isolation.

“I helped the medical officers with their identifications, completed the admissions, helped with respiratory swabs and observations, and settled them into our hospital – it’s teamwork,” Ms Li said.

“Catherine’s the unsung hero of the health service’s early handling of the visitors,” Dr Gerrard said.

Dr Gerrard, who last year received a Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal for establishing Australia’s first treatment centre in an Ebola hot zone said they’ve learned a lot since.

“Australia’s public health response to COVID-19 was exemplary. Closing the borders early, the rapid availability of laboratory testing and a strong public health system allowed us to be in our current position. Most countries were not as proactive, nor do they have the systems that we already had in place,” said Dr Gerrard.

“The isolation wards and negative pressure rooms at GCUH allowed us to practice a high level of hospital infection control.”

Clinical training and upskilling were also ramped up in response with over 250 simulation training sessions undertaken in April – more than the entire number conducted in 2019.

Dr Gerrard is also the hospital lead behind promising clinical trials for a world-first malaria vaccine, developed by fellow Gold Coaster, Professor Michael Good AO, Principal Research Leader for the Precinct’s flagship Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University.

Unfortunately the trials, like a lot of research, have been stalled by the pandemic, but the pivot to COVID-19 prioritisation has been swift, extensive and impressive from a raft of researchers, among them Professor Good, a past Chairman of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI),

Eureka Prize winner and Queensland ‘Great’, who was appointed to the National COVID-19 Health and Medical Research Advisory Committee. We can safely say we’re in good hands.

He’s also part of a multi-pronged Glycomics research effort exploring vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. In June, another $200,000 was added to their research arsenal, jointly funded by the Queensland Government and the City of Gold Coast to support collaboration in the international consortium iCAIR®, led by Europe’s largest and most prestigious research organisation, Fraunhofer.

“This Australian-German alliance establishes a development platform that covers all the steps of a targeted drug development process, from identifying potential points of attack, right through to drug design and efficacy testing,” said Institute Director, Professor Mark von Itzstein, AO.

First out of the Griffith block in mid-March with a promising rapid response vaccine platform and commercial development MOU was Professor Bernd Rehm, with animal trials now underway, while Professor Suresh Mahalingam, from Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland, wasn’t far behind in sealing a deal with an existing Indian partner to develop a live attenuated vaccine.

Others funded for COVID research include Professor Nigel McMillan, also based at Menzies on the Gold Coast, awarded more than $300,000 from the Australian government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) for studies into using gene silencing technologies to target the virus.

He’s been named in the top 10 Australian thought leaders during the pandemic – an era when epidemiologists and virologists have become media rock stars.

“For me this is what a university should be doing for the public, offering evidence-based advice and facts to inform them of the situation and the way forward,” said Professor McMillan.

Responding to pandemic impacts

Griffith researcher and GCUH emergency doctor Dinesh Palipana OAM was straight on the front foot advocating for the disabled community, as his own research in advanced rehabilitation towards a cure for spinal cord injury stalled, like many other research projects.

Dr Palipana, who is Queensland’s first quadriplegic doctor, highlighted the vulnerability of disabled people during a public health crisis, bringing healthcare rationing into sharp focus and taking his advocacy and expertise national and international on forums such as the ABC’s Q+A program.

“Society grappled with questions about how ventilators could be rationed between people with disabilities and those without,” Dr Palipana said. And he posed a critical question: should he automatically be disqualified from intensive care if he gets sick?

Across the board, Griffith University researchers have responded with hope in the crisis, with a slew of social and psychological studies, economic research and analysis, studies into the environmental impacts of a planetary pandemic and insights into the new geopolitical world order.

For Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Mario Pinto, who arrived to start at Griffith from Canada in the eye of the pandemic storm in February, the research impact on the social and economic front is critical, alongside the race for treatments.

“Much of the COVID-19 research response has been on informing policy to address issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, mental health and wellness, early childhood education, health disparities linked to criminal behaviour and social determinants of health,” Professor Pinto said.

Research has a pivotal role in accelerating our recovery post COVID-19 given the impressive multiplier effect of high-quality research, which is often underestimated.

In the recovery our research will focus on the most impacted sectors such as tourism and hospitality, retail, transport and logistics, creative and performing arts and extend to growth areas such as advanced manufacturing and rehabilitation services.”


Additive Manufacturing will play a big part on the road to recovery


Opportunity Knocks

It hasn’t been all bad news – the Precinct celebrated Queen’s birthday honours for two deserving health stars – Griffith Pro-Vice Chancellor Health, Professor Sheena Reilly AM, a leading paediatric health researcher, and Professor of Emergency Care Julia Crilley OAM, from GCUH.

Necessity is also proving the mother of invention, as Industrial Design lecturer Dr Sam Canning demonstrated by creating a prototype ventilator from everyday items, including a bike, that could save lives in developing countries. Pre-pandemic, Dr Canning, whose research is part of Griffith’s Advanced Design and Prototyping Technologies Institute (ADaPT), was busy partnering with world-leading interventional neuroradiologists Dr Hal Rice and Dr Laeticia de Villiers from the GCUH to design and 3D print exact replicas of brain aneurysms in blood vessels, for use in complex surgery planning and specialised training. That’s quite the COVID pivot!

And where innovation can continue, there’s no stopping it – Doctors Rice and de Villiers are enrolling patients in a world-first trial of a unique robotic arm used during brain aneurysm treatments.

From service innovation to the Precinct’s coworking hub COHORT going virtual, virtually overnight, there’s been pivoting a plenty. Cohort tenant Virtual Mgr, a compliance-based software company that specialises in enterprise-level solutions to manage cleaning, food safety and other risk and compliance issues, quickly grasped the COVID opportunity to develop cheaper, more agile software – even launching in the UK, and employing more staff. They’ve now deployed a new application to help the Australian Supercars run a COVID-safe racing series.

Early May saw Cohort’s new PC1 and PC2 labs open, with Cluster Biotech, a biotech scale-up company focused on probiotic technologies, bravely taking a mid-pandemic plunge into a new business location and operating model.

Perhaps the most exciting development is how the pandemic has catalysed the amazing potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare.

Data-driven technology company Datarwe, the brainchild of innovators Dr Kelvin Ross, Board Member of the Queensland Government’s new $5.5 million AI Hub, and Dr Brent Richards, Medical Director of Innovation and Director of Critical Care Research at GCUH, has just set up a data lab at Cohort. Datarwe is funded through a $1.5 million Advance Queensland grant to develop a Precision Medicine Data Platform that gathers data from multiple devices to support doctors and nurses in making informed decisions on critical patient care.

“We are currently working around the clock with Queensland Health to add a COVID-19 Rapid Response dashboard to the Datarwe platform,” Dr Ross said.

It’s innovation that couldn’t be more needed right now – just ask patients COVID-19 patients like 81-year-old Richard Misior, who spent 77 days in the GCUH ICU, or 61 year old retired police officer Kim Watkins who was the first person in Australia to successfully come off a ventilator.

New developments for a post-pandemic future

New Queensland Minister for State Development, Tourism and Innovation, Hon Kate Jones, made her first trip out of isolation in mid-May to meet the innovators at Cluster Biotech, and to announce the final design stage of an $80 million development known as Proxima, which represents a truly exciting show of confidence in these ‘unprecedented’ times.

Fittingly, with the world facing an uncertain future, the Precinct’s first private development within the 9.5 hectare Lumina commercial cluster will focus on the next generation. Proxima will incorporate integrated childcare for kids with special needs, alongside paediatric research and child allied health services.

With four months still to go in a year that seemingly will never end, the GHCKP looks well positioned to play its part in a post-pandemic future beyond the COVID horizon.

This article was originally published on the Health and Knowledge Precinct Gold Coast words by Kathy Kruger.