More than 30 years after he was recruited to Westmead Hospital to help pioneer pancreas transplantation in Australia, Professor Wayne Hawthorne continues to develop groundbreaking treatments that offer hope to patients with type 1 diabetes.
In type 1 diabetes, the patient’s immune system attacks islet cells in the pancreas, which secrete the hormone insulin.
“Type 1 patients have problems balancing their blood sugar, which can lead to vascular disease, kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage and gangrene,” says Prof Hawthorne.
Prof Hawthorne was part of the team that originally developed combined pancreas and kidney transplants at Westmead. There is a worldwide shortage of donor organs, and in Australia there are 10 times as many recipients waiting for transplants as donors.
This lifesaving need initiated research aimed at developing alternatives.
After decades of work, five years ago research by Prof Hawthorne and his team into extracting islet cells from donor pancreases that couldn’t be used for pancreas transplants culminated in clinical islet cell transplantation. However, this method still relies on the availability of donor pancreases.
More recently, Prof Hawthorne has been researching the modification of the islet cells of specialised pigs that the human body will not reject. This is known as xenotransplantation. Clinical trials are expected to start in five to 10 years.
Prof Hawthorne also supervises PhD, masters and honours students, teaches medical students, and has helped train more than 4000 doctors in the Early Management of Severe Trauma (EMST) course.
He has written more than 150 papers and regularly travels overseas to help establish research programs and address medical experts.
Prof Hawthorne’s modesty is a match for his achievements.
“I am here to help patients and students, and to do research work to underpin our clinical work,” he says. “To see something go from a basic research project for many, many years and then be applied to patients is the ultimate outcome.”