IMAGE: Deputy Head of the Centre for Biomedical Research, Associate Professor Heidi Drummer
On International Women’s Day (IWD) 2016, Burnet Institute is well placed to address the special needs of women in poor and disadvantaged communities, according to Associate Professor Heidi Drummer.
The Deputy Head of the Centre for Biomedical Research, Associate Professor Drummer is a champion of the role of women in research, and for research leading to cures and the prevention of diseases affecting women.
“A lot of the diseases that we study disproportionately affect women in many communities – malaria is an example of that,” Associate Professor Drummer said.
“The rates of HIV infection in developing countries is about 50 percent (women), and hundreds of thousands of children are infected with HIV every year through childbirth and breastfeeding, so there’s enormous potential for what we do to translate into better health outcomes for women.
“Some of the work that Associate Professor Gilda Tachedjian is doing in terms of designing new microbicides that might prevent generally the transmission of sexual infections is a great step forward for empowering women to achieve better health in those developing countries.
“I also think the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB) program is a great opportunity to improve the health of women in Papua New Guinea in particular by having better monitoring of their health, assessing them for malaria and HIV.
“We’re going to start a program around hepatitis C hopefully as well to see what the infection rates are there, and that’s a really positive step, a practical step that we can do right now to achieve better health in that community.”
Associate Professor Drummer said the research field has come a long way since she was awarded her PhD in 1993. Within Burnet, there are now more women than men at research assistant level, and more women doing PhDs than men.
Of Burnet’s 204 staff members based in Melbourne, 117 are women, 73 of whom are researchers comprising 35 in the Centre for Biomedical Research, 31 in the Centre for Population Health and seven in the Centre for International Health.
An important factor, Associate Professor Drummer said, is the example set by role models including Associate Professor Tachedjian and Dr Megan Lim from the Centre for Population Health, and she nominated Margot Anders and Lorena Brown as mentors who helped to shape her own research career.
“I think my mother was a great role model too because she was a working mother all through my childhood, and later running her own business,” Associate Professor Drummer said.
Associate Professor Drummer said she was excited by the outlook for her own area of research interest, the development of a vaccine for hepatitis C, which she described as ‘a silent epidemic’.
About 50 percent of people who have hepatitis C are unaware of their infection, and those who are aware often don’t do anything about it until they start developing symptoms of liver disease, which can take from 10 to 30 years.
“The new direct acting antivirals that have come onto the market give everyone the opportunity to achieve clearance of their infection, but my research focus is how we can prevent infection and how do we prevent people who’ve received treatment from becoming reinfected,” Associate Professor Drummer said.
“The vaccine is showing great promise and we’re in the late pre-clinical stage of development where we’re trying to get all of the data together that we need to start a human clinical trial.
“That’s a very expensive, time consuming and lengthy process, but it’s the next stage that we really need to get to – to show that what we’ve done in the laboratory actually happens in people.
“That will be the next great challenge as we go towards the goal of eradication.”