Clinician Scientist Fellowships

The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) attracts the best medical minds from across the world to create a brighter future for children’s healthcare. Thanks to the Good Friday Appeal, the Clinicians Scientist Fellows are being supported to focus on vital research to find new cures, treatments and medications for the biggest health problems facing children.

In any one year there are about 20 fellows at various stages of their five year fellowship.

Professor Rick Leventer is one of the current Clinician Scientist Fellows. As a paediatric neurologist, Rick sees patients with all types of neurological disorders and has particular research interests in genetic diseases of the central nervous system that affect how the brain develops during pregnancy and in the first years of life.

“Before the fellowship, I was doing most of my research in my spare time and after hours as it was a struggle to find the time to do it effectively whilst trying to balance all of my clinical duties,” said Rick.

The face of the 2021 Appeal Malu has epilepsy

Thanks to your support of the Good Friday Appeal, Rick is able to further his work as both a clinician and scientist with protected time to focus on his research. Through the Clinician Scientist Fellowship, Rick is able to offer patients and families seen in his neuro-genetic clinic, including those with epilepsy, the opportunity to be part of research on early brain development, making direct impact on his patient’s care.

Part of Rick’s research involves analysing the brain tissue collected during a hemispherectomy – a surgery to disconnect or remove parts of the brain that are causing seizures – to find the cause of epilepsy.

“With the parent’s permission, some of the brain tissue that is removed is saved and snap frozen in the operating theatre. We then take it directly to the laboratory for genetic and microscopic analysis where we try and understand why the brain may have developed abnormally to cause seizures.”

Through the fellowship, Rick and his team have already made some exciting breakthroughs, including identifying specific nerve cells that carry a genetic error which trigger epileptic seizures. This has been a significant finding not only for medical professionals, but also to help families understand the cause of their child’s condition.

Rick’s discoveries are also important for the future of children’s health, creating opportunities for further research into precision medicine to target the genetic error and guide the best surgical approaches aimed at the smallest amount of tissue necessary to control seizures.

Rick is one of 20 fellows at the RCH who are able to mentor younger clinicians interested in research.

“The funds put in to support one clinician scientist are actually multiplied many times by the influence we can have on other researchers on campus,” said Rick.

Thanks to the support from the Good friday Appeal, clinician scientists at the RCH have dedicated time to advance the care of sick children in Victoria and beyond.

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The nine tonne, $6 million Magnetic Resonance Positron Emission Tomography machine, or MR PET, was funded by community donations through the Good Friday Appeal.

RCH Neurologist Dr Simon Harvey said the MR PET combined the most effective medical scanning procedures, Medical Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), into one piece of equipment for the first time.

“For our young patients, some of whom require sedation and even general anaesthetic to undergo these important but intimidating procedures, the MR PET will means fewer scans, and therefore a more positive experience,” Dr Harvey said.

“It also means more accurate diagnoses, because in addition to giving us high quality MRI and PET scans in one session, the MR and PET will be accurately overlaid into one image.

What is a PET scan? 

PET is a form of metabolic imaging – an imaging technique that uses radioisotopes and provides critical information about the metabolic state of body tissues. Doctors use PET scans to identify and monitor tumours, areas of inflammation and sites of seizure activity.

What is an MRI scan?

MRI is form of structural imaging – an imaging technique that provides doctors with critical information about the structure and function of body tissues.

“This will show us, very precisely, the location of tumours, malformations and sites of inflammation in the body, many of which might not be visible with the single images.

“The MR PET will be used to assess and diagnose a wide range of patients, but it has particular advantages for children with certain forms of cancer, uncontrolled epilepsy and inflammatory disorders.”

– RCH Neurologist Dr Simon Harvey

The MR PET was transported to The Royal Children’s Hospital on a semi-trailer and manoeuvred into its new, purpose-built, copper-lined lab in the Medical Imaging Department via a 20 tonne forklift and a team of eight people. The copper shielding is to ensure the operation of the MR PET magnet does not affect other areas of the hospital.

Posted December 2016

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