Professor Kathryn North AM
Director of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute
One of the most superior Australian minds, Professor Kathryn North is the director of Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the David Danks Professor of Child Health Research at the University of Melbourne. She is also Chair of Research Committee to the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to medicine in the field of neuromuscular and neurogenetics research.
“Now we can take blood or skin cells from you and recreate your kidneys in the laboratory. We’re starting to recreate cartilage cells as well.”
Trainedasapaediatric physician, neurologist and clinical geneticist, Professor North is also an international leading expert in genomic medicine.
Brilliant and beautiful, Professor Kathryn North is devoid of amour propre, with no apparent air or condescendence. There is self-value and pride at the right doses as well as a healthy sense of humour and wit to complement her intellectual prowess. And then there is also that inimitable sense of style and sassiness in her dressing and impish choir-boy haircut. People love Kathryn North.
In 1994 Professor North was awarded a doctorate for research in neurogenetics. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard Genetics Program.
Interest in genetics developed from her training in neurology where her focus was on children with severe intellectual disabilities and muscular dystrophies. Most of these disorders have a genetic or inherited basis. “When I started practising medicine the human genome haven’t been sequenced. I could not give the parents an answer as to why their children aren’t developing normally. It’s literally those simple questions every parent deserves to know that really drives me,” she shares.
Her research in genetic diagnosis produced ground-breaking results. “By using the latest genomic technologies, we’ve increased the diagnostic rate by four times at a fifth of the cost. Genomic medicine is set revolutionising clinical care. We are moving towards prevention and early intervention, instead of waiting for the problem to occur and then treat it, a method which is often costly and ineffective. In some cases, we can even prevent intellectual disability and start treatment before the brain gets damaged. That’s the dream.”
“Genomic medicine is set revolutionise clinical care. We are moving towards prevention and early intervention”
With genetics, there is always the proverbial argument of ‘playing god’. “Everything we do goes through ethics approval and family consent to make sure we are respecting the patient’s beliefs and wishes. Genomic testing is not so different. It’s just much better with a lot more sensitivity and accurate results,” she reveals.
Essentially this guru of genetics is passionate about child health. The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is by far the best in Australia and one of the top five child health facilities in the world. “We are able to attract funding because of our excellence. We work very actively with peer-reviewed funding agencies and philanthropists where we commercialise and drive innovation within the industry to make our discoveries and inventions available.”
“I still have big plans for this place, I can tell you. With genomic medicine, we are working out some of the big problems in food allergies. We are rolling out life-saving vaccines in Asia and Africa. Stem cell medicine and therapy is our latest initiative. Now we can take blood or skin cells from you and recreate your kidneys in the laboratory. We’re starting to recreate cartilage cells as well,” she beams.
I’m immensely proud of it and it’s just wonderful to be able to do something like that. I look forward to coming to work every day.”
by Billie Ooi – Ng Lean Gaik