It is a striking piece of architecture and a distinctive campus landmark. The Charles Perkins Centre (CPC) is also home to some of the leading thinkers and innovators in the fight against the modern lifestyle illnesses of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
As you would expect, many of the people you’ll find in the building are from various fields of medicine, but what initially made the CPC a disruptor, was how it didn’t limit itself to a medical world view. Instead, it accepted the reality that lifestyle-related conditions require more than medical solutions.
“Yes, these conditions are a product of our biology,” says Professor Stephen Simpson AC, who has been Academic Director of the CPC since its inception. “But they’re also about how our biology interacts with our modern environment – food systems and built environments, which then draw in the effects of politics, economics, ethical constructs, global relations.”
This idea of integrating disciplines challenged the more siloed thinking of other research organisations and university administrations – but 10 years later, the concept of ‘multidisciplinary research’ has gained international traction.
The centre’s conception gained early momentum from an original painting by Picasso, Jeune Fille Endormie, donated by an anonymous benefactor, with the caveat that proceeds from its sale be used for research. The $20.7 million raised allowed greater free flow of design ideas and a kickstart for research, including supporting the recruitment of four Professorial Chairs – the Leonard P Ullmann Professors.
Known as the ‘Picasso Professors’, they augmented more than a dozen other senior recruitments through various faculties, many appointed thanks to further significant gifts from generous donors. So began the CPC’s journey to find answers to the health problems that affect so many.
And the numbers are sobering; around 67 percent of adult Australians and one quarter of children have obesity or are classified as overweight, with an estimated 1.3 million affected by diabetes and 1.2 million with conditions related to heart, stroke or vascular disease.*
Two of the Leonard P Ullmann Chairs, Professors David James and Luigi Fontana and their teams, along with Diabetes NSW and ACT Chair, Associate Professor Samantha Hocking (MBBS ’99, MMed (ClinEpi) ’06), lead the study of the common biological systems that underlie ageing. These systems control the risk of many cardiometabolic and autoimmune diseases, and even the risk of poor outcomes from infectious diseases, like COVID-19. Healthy ageing is a major focus of many CPC researchers and clinicians, including another of the Leonard P Ullmann Chairs, Professor Sharon Naismith, who works on healthy brain ageing with colleagues at the CPC and the Brain and Mind Centre.
In matters of the heart, the Cardiovascular Initiative, under Professor Gemma Figtree (BSc(Med Hons) ’98, MBBS ’00), and the CardioSleep Research Program, under Professor Peter Cistulli (PhD (Medicine) ‘95), are exploring links between sleep-disordered breathing and three major cardiovascular diseases. Researchers such as Dr Mark Larance and Associate Professor Laurence Macia, are using major core research facilities at the CPC to reveal the myriad functions and interactions of proteins, which are crucial as builders and maintainers of living organisms. Their work in proteomics is well-advanced, with the real promise of new medical insights and treatments attuned to the specific needs of individuals.
Emerging from all of this research is a truly integrated view that seeks to understand the intimate relationships between human biology and our environment – physical, social and natural. As Professor Jakelin Troy (BA (Hons) ‘86), leader of the CPC Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Health theme notes, by considering individuals within an ecological context, the CPC strategy shares important characteristics with Indigenous knowledge systems.
The big thrill is bringing brilliant people together, seeing sparks, then gently blowing on the embers to see what might happen. That can be truly revelatory
Critical to the development of this understanding is the relationship between biology and the humanities. Research into the history and philosophy of science and medicine, led by Faculty of Social Sciences professors, Paul Griffiths and another donor-supported researcher, Warwick Anderson, is also helping to throw light on the origins of our biology, health and the sociological context.
The CPC has also taken on less expected public health projects, like its successful association with national airline, Qantas. Using modelling by the Faculty of Engineering, Qantas decided that a direct flight from Perth to London was economically viable. But this would be ultra-long-haul flying and a passenger-experience rethink might be needed, so Qantas approached the CPC.
“We talked about everything that passengers experience on the ground and in the air, like jet lag, and how our understanding of circadian biology could mitigate it. All sorts of University of Sydney scientists contributed: sleep biologists, dietitians, nutritionists, people working in physics, physical activity, state of mind, industrial design, lighting engineering, and more,” Simpson says. “The Perth-London route has been a huge success, and we are now working with Qantas on the next big project – Project Sunrise, flying direct between London and Sydney and New York and Sydney.”
Another unexpected collaboration is the donor-funded Judy Harris Writer in Residence Fellowship at the Charles Perkins Centre, which was launched in 2016 with author, Charlotte Wood. It provides the opportunity for writers to work with researchers and clinicians on creative projects related to issues that the CPC is dedicated to solving. Works arising from this Fellowship include novels, essays and a play, with the highly-sought-after residency currently held by renowned poet, Professor Sarah Holland-Batt.
The aim of the CPC isn’t just to produce game-changing research, but to produce consumable information that stimulates and informs public debate. The CPC’s Academic Director, Simpson is also a prodigious researcher, often working with his long-time colleague and another Leonard P Ullmann Chair, Professor David Raubenheimer, who leads the CPC nutrition theme. Together and separately, they have authored numerous books and papers, and their new theories for nutritional biology are helping to shape the debate around public health and nutrition.
It is clear to both Raubenheimer and Simpson, who are among the world’s foremost nutritional biologists, that the food industry has taken advantage of our natural hungers for protein, fat and sugar to sell us products that are great for their profits but degrade health. "If we can create a more balanced food environment, we’ll simultaneously ease the burden on the health system from a range of serious conditions and an unhealthily ageing population,” Raubenheimer says.
These ideas are, indeed, part of the national conversation, but some ideas are yet to fully break through – for example, the BABY1000 Project, which is funded by a generous alumna who left a gift in her will. Professor Adrienne Gordon (MPH (Hons) ’05, PhD (Medicine) ’12), is looking at the first 1000 days of a baby’s life, with a view to understanding lifelong health outcomes; research which will benefit the next generation. And she has an important insight for men who want to become fathers – their lifestyle choices affect the health of their child, long before conception.
Looking at the CPC building, you could say it isn’t just beautiful, it’s deep too. In fact, it reaches four floors underground, protecting highly sensitive technology from light, sound, temperature changes and vibration; technology for robotic surgery and next-generation biomedical imaging that will dramatically improve treatment options and patient outcomes.
The scope of what happens at the CPC expands wherever you look, much of it made possible by many donors giving their support. For example, Dr Barry Catchlove (MBBS ‘66) AM’s gifts have helped to create the CPC’s dynamic early and mid-career researcher (EMCR) cohort – while the late author and educator, Jennie Mackenzie, has fostered early career researchers through her extraordinary philanthropy.
Every year, 20,000 students from across disciplines are taught within its walls, and community health is enhanced through the Charles Perkins Centre Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Clinic, which now sees 10,000 patients and clinical trial subjects a year. Beyond the building itself, there are CPC hubs at Nepean and Westmead and members in disciplines across the University and beyond in affiliated organisations.
“A lot has happened at the CPC over the ten years,” says Simpson with some understatement. “But the big thrill is bringing brilliant people together, seeing sparks, then gently blowing on the embers to see what might happen. That can be truly revelatory.”
*Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
Written by George Dodd for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Louise M Cooper