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Brain the lure for “Prof Switzerland”

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 22 July 2013

Professor Helen Chenery is a speech pathologist keeping a large group of neurosurgeons, engineers and ethicists on track as they research deep brain stimulation’s role in making patients’ lives better

Helen Chenery’s colleagues call her “Professor Switzerland”.

It’s a moniker she bears with a smile and, one suspects, not inconsiderable pride.

As director of the Asia–Pacific Centre for Neuromodulation (APCN) at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Professor Chenery must corral a pool of diverse talent engaged in groundbreaking research and innovation.

It is a task not unlike herding cats, but she does it with alacrity.

“It’s a significant leadership role”, she tells the MJA.

“There are about 40 to 50 people presently engaged in research with us. A lot of them have day jobs in other centres, other universities. So it’s quite a task pulling together such a disparate group of smart people”, she says.

The group at the APCN includes neurologists, neurosurgeons, neurophysiologists, even engineers — biomedical, electrical and mechanical — health economists and neuroethicists, as well as allied health practitioners such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists.

DBS is the APCN’s main focus, working with patients with Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, Tourette syndrome and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), among others.

The day Professor Chenery spoke with the MJA, she was working on a grant application for a new joint venture between the APCN and the CSIRO.

“In collaboration with CSIRO we are developing a remote patient monitoring device which will allow us to monitor Parkinson’s patients in their home using passive sensors which send information to their smartphone”, Professor Chenery says.

“How do you measure quality of life? You can sit someone down in the doctor’s surgery and ask them how they are, using a subjective rating scale, but then you see performance effects and all kinds of biases.

“This device will provide an objective measurement of the severity of a person’s Parkinson’s in their everyday life, as well as their response to treatment, focusing on all the characteristics of the disease — their movement, their mood, how they’re communicating.”

Professor Chenery concedes the device raises all kinds of ethical questions around the patient’s privacy, but argues that in the age of “quantifiable me”, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“We have to look at the balance between privacy and being more open to have a better health outcome”, she says.

Among her colleagues Professor Chenery is the exception rather than the rule.

She is a speech pathologist, graduating from the University of Queensland (UQ) in 1978 before completing her Masters (1987) and PhD (1994). She has a storied 33-year clinical career assisting people who have lost the ability to communicate as the result of a sudden neurological injury such as stroke or head injury or who have a slowly progressive neurological condition such as Parkinson disease or Alzheimer disease.

Her teaching career spanned 20 years, progressing from senior tutor to deputy executive dean (academic) of the Faculty of Health Sciences at UQ until the middle of last year when she took up her current post at the APCN.

“It didn’t take very long into my training for me to realise that the brain was where it was at”, Professor Chenery says.

“The brain is so intricately precise. In terms of communication it defines so much of who we are and how we relate to our world. It’s a mirror to our soul.”

DBS has had its fair share of detractors, but Professor Chenery is more than happy to accept and learn from those criticisms.

“The detractors keep the debate warm — hot, sometimes — but it’s a debate that has to be had”, she says.

“We never resile from that debate. The worst thing would be to pretend that negative outcomes or controversies or different opinions don’t exist. The best thing is to let the light shine on them and bring the critics into the collaboration.”

“Professor Switzerland” says her status as a speech pathologist gives her an advantage when heading up a team of clinicians.

“I don’t bring a lot of baggage in terms of territoriality”, she says, citing a problem that can dog disparate groups of clinicians. “I try not to cut the baby in half to solve a problem, and I find that a lot can be achieved with goodwill and communication.

“We can’t be a good DBS centre if we don’t see it as an episode in a really long journey for these patients.

“The patients in our matched control groups, who aren’t receiving deep brain stimulation — they are living with Parkinson’s or OCD or Tourette syndrome as well — their journey can be lonely and troubled. We always try to keep that in mind”, Professor Chenery says.

For now, at least, she says she has found her dream job.

“It’s so rewarding. And busy. And tough”, she says. “This is a rapidly moving space. The technology develops so quickly so the granting agencies and publishers are needing to think of different and faster ways to keep pace.

“But there is so much goodwill and I feel like this is the right place at the right time for me.”

  • Cate Swannell


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