Blue-sky Thinking 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Australia is a country of vast distances and endless blue skies. If the concept of “blue-sky thinking” is possible anywhere, it should be in Australia, not for the cloudless weather but for the informality and fluidity of social interaction which seem to characterize the country. The country’s twenty-three million residents enjoy the benefits of vast natural resources, high per capita income, a robust economy and high employment. Unfortunately, Australia also has the world’s second highest mortality rate from mesothelioma, the signature cancer associated with exposure to asbestos. According to data collected by the World Health Organization, between 1994 and 2008, 3,747 Australians died of mesothelioma.1 These figures, as bad as they are, are just part of the story. As a result of the two million tonnes of asbestos used in Australia, much of which remains in place, up to 40,000 Australians could contract asbestos-related diseases over the next twenty years.2

In 2007, the Commonwealth Government decided to tackle the country’s “worst industrial menace,” using a “blue sky” approach. By delineating key research themes and providing the most up-to-date technology to the best scientists, clinicians and researchers working collaboratively within a national framework, it was hoped to find “a prevention and/or cure for asbestos cancer in the shortest realistic timeframe.”3 As much of the cutting edge work was already being done in Western Australia (WA), the headquarters of the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases (NCARD) was sited in Perth. At the end of last year (2013), NCARD moved into new premises at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research;4 on April 2, 2014, I was privileged to visit the Center and meet the NCARD team.

Having previously found myself overwhelmed by the abbreviated communication shorthand used by mesothelioma researchers, I was delighted to find that the conversation with the professors, physicians, scientists, biologists, oncologists and doctoral students was both understandable and informative. The Scientific Director of NCARD is Professor Bruce Robinson, a respiratory physician who has for decades been at the forefront of WA’s pioneering work on mesothelioma.


IBAS Coordinator Laurie Kazan-Allen and Professor Bruce Robinson.

Catching up with Bruce is always a pleasure as his enthusiasm for the work remains undiminished. Having had the chance to meet some of his colleagues it is little wonder; the team ethos and dedication which pervades the centre is almost tangible. Curing mesothelioma is not just an academic pipe-dream; it is a goal which informs the researchers every minute of every day. NCARD staff engage both professionally and personally with members of the asbestos community. Professor Anna Nowak, who received the Emeritus Professor Eric G. Saint Memorial Award 2014 from the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) in March 2014, has spoken publicly about the “very close link back to those whom are suffering with the disease [mesothelioma]. Patients come to us from the ADSA for ongoing care and therefore we never lose sight of the end goal in our research.”5


IBAS Coordinator Laurie Kazan-Allen and NCARD Team

During the discussions which took place at NCARD, I was pleased to hear about current projects which look at:

  • the role of immunotherapy in targeting cancer cells following surgical procedures;
  • stimulating the immune system to attack cancer cells by the partial removal of a tumor;
  • new drug combinations and/or uses of existing drugs not primarily used for treating mesothelioma; development of a cancer vaccine;
  • the development of biological markers for diagnosing mesothelioma;
  • possible treatments exploiting regulatory T cells which prevent the body from attacking itself thereby helping the immune system to be more effective in its fight against cancer;
  • clinical applications for regulatory T cells in treating mesothelioma patients.

The research work undertaken by NCARD investigators has implications not only for Australian mesothelioma victims but also for others affected by this fatal asbestos cancer. The parameters however are wider than this disease as one of the scientists explained. “Mesothelioma,” he said “is a window on other things.” If treatments can be found which can impact on mesothelioma tumors, the same treatments could be trialed on other tumors.

Reflecting on my time at NCARD, it is salient to recall that the team’s new premises are at the state-of-the-art Harry Perkins Institute. Harry Perkins was a West Australian entrepreneur who helped make Wesfarmers one of Australia’s largest listed companies. Another West Australian industrial magnate was Lang Hancock, the legendary mining billionaire who discovered and exploited the Wittenoom blue asbestos mine. His daughter, Gina Rinehart, believed to be Australia’s wealthiest person and the fifth richest woman in the world, is a Wittenoom child. Like many of her school fellows and their families she is at risk of developing asbestos-related cancer.


The sack race. Photo taken at the Wittenoom racecourse which was covered in asbestos tailings. Photo courtesy of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc.

Engaging in a bit of blue-sky thinking, let me posit the following: with all the money at her disposal and a clear interest in curing a disease she may herself one day contract, Ms. Rinehart could follow Mr. Perkins’ example and support the outstanding work being carried out by the NCARD team. That truly would be a legacy worth leaving.

April 24, 2014


1 Delgermaa V, Takahashi K. et al. Global mesothelioma deaths reported to the World Health Organization between 1994 and 2008. Bulletin World Health Organization 2011.

2 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Life and Death in Australia. April 15, 2013.

3 Leaflet: National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases.

4 The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research website:

5 Award recognition for excellence in care for asbestos victims. March 20, 2014.



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