Sullivan, Colin Edward

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Colin Sullivan has made significant contributions internationally to the understanding and treatment of sleep apnea. He was not only instrumental in developing the first adult and paediatric sleep laboratories in Australia, he also invented the nasal CPAP technology used to treat sleep apnea.

Colin was born in Sydney in 1945. He studied Medicine at the University of Sydney and after graduating in 1970, completed his residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1971, he was a Fellow in Thoracic Medicine with the Department of Medicine at the University of Sydney and the Page Chest Pavilion at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He became a Registrar in General Medicine at the Hospital in 1972 and then undertook postgraduate studies in the Physiology Department at the University of Sydney.

From 1976 to 1978, Colin was a John Read Memorial Travelling Fellow of the Asthma Foundation of NSW and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto in Canada. He was awarded his PhD in 1977 and a year later, received the Cecile Lehman Mayer Research Award of the American College of Chest Physicians, Washington, for original research on the influence of sleep on airway-smooth muscle tone.

On his return to Australia in 1979, Colin was appointed Senior Lecturer in Medicine at the University of Sydney and became an Honorary Physician at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He was appointed Associate Professor of Medicine in 1983 and Professor in 1991, a position in which he remains today. In the same year he became Head of the Centre for Respiratory Failure and Sleep Disorders at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Colin has an extensive background in basic animal and human experimental research and is recognised as the international leader in the management of sleep disordered breathing. He was promoted to a Personal Chair in 1991 and in 1994, was awarded the research medal of the Thoracic Society of Australia. Among major research achievements are a large series of studies unravelling the basic mechanisms of how breathing is altered in sleep. This work was instrumental in identifying arousal responses from sleep as a crucial element in survival following respiratory failure.

Colin has played a vital role in promoting the investigation of sleep disorders in Australia, and established the first diagnostic sleep laboratory for adults in the 1980s. He was responsible for establishing the first paediatric clinical research laboratory at the Children’s Hospital, Camperdown in 1990. This led to the building of the clinical and research Sleep Units at the New Children’s Hospital, Westmead in 1995 and the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick in 1998. Both of these units are purpose built with three to four diagnostic rooms as part of a larger care-by-parent area. They are connected by a telemedicine link to the research centre at the Institute of Respiratory Medicine within the the University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Colin is known internationally for the use of nasal continuous positive airway pressure, for treating obstructive sleep apnea, and has played a direct role in the development of the Australian company ResMed that now produces and exports these devices.

Beyond the identification of the significant influence of sleep on breathing, his major scientific achievements have included the characterisation of the pathophysiology of adult sleep apnea; the invention of nasal CPAP in 1980, now the ‘gold standard’ treatment of sleep apnoea; the development of non-invasive ventilation during sleep to manage respiratory failure; the recognition of the extent of upper airway obstruction in infantile apnoea; the development of human foetal monitoring technology, and the discovery of the mechanism of sleep-induced worsening of blood pressure in pre-eclampsia.

As well as being the inventor of the medical technology that is at the heart of the highly successful company ResMed, Colin played a key role in the commercial development of this company, and was Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board. ResMed is one of only a few success stories in which Australian-invented technology has been turned into a major international enterprise with a market capitalisation of over US$3 billion (New York Stock Exchange) and with revenues exceeding US$500 million in 2006. ResMed designs, develops and manufactures all of its products in Australia (North Ryde and Norwest Park) and employs over 2300 people globally with more than half in Australia. ResMed is now recognised as a model for how research and technology should be developed for the benefit of Australians, and Colin’s key role in that is widely recognised. On these merits, he was awarded the prestigious Sutherland Award of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (awarded on the basis of applying technology for the benefit of the community). ResMed won the 2002 Australian Exporter of the Year Award, presented in Melbourne by the Prime Minister.

Colin has continued his efforts to repeat the success ResMed by developing a centre linked with the University to act as an incubator for developing medical technology.

Further to his professorial role, at present, Colin is Chair of the Research Committee in the Department of Medicine at the University of Sydney, and a Consultant Physician with the Children’s Hospital at Westmead and the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Sullivan, Colin Edward. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.