Home' Scoop : Scoop 53 Spring 2010 Contents scoop SPRING 2010 83
everal years ag o, Professor Ralph
Martins was taken aside by a colleague
who had heard he’d decided to work
on Alzheimer’s disease.
“He said, ‘Don’t bother, you will
never get anywhere with Alzheimer’s’,” Professor
Martins says. Today, however, with a suite of
ground-breaking discoveries and research putting
him right at the forefront of world knowledg e
about this debilitating disease, he’s rather glad
that he didn’t listen.
“It just goes to show if you believe in
something, it can be done,” he says.
Professor Martins is head of the Sir James
McCusker Unit for Alzheimer’s Disease Research
and the inaugural chair for Ageing and Alzheimer’s
Disease at Edith Cowan University, and was
named 2010 West Australian of the Year for
his work towards developing an early diagnostic
blood test for Alzheimer’s.
Almost since the day he turned his attention
to Alzheimer’s disease back in 1984, Professor
Martins has been making groundbreaking research
discoveries and breakthroughs.
In collaboration with Professor Colin Masters at
the University of Melbourne, and neuroscientists
around the world, Professor Martins’ dedicated
team is working on projects that bring us closer
every day to being able to identify this debilitating
and devastating disease. Better still, it may one day
be treatable, perhaps even preventable.
With an ever-ageing population, dementia is
predicted to become the number one health issue
this century unless treatments are discovered. Yet,
since its discovery by German psychiatrist Alois
Alzheimer in 1906, remarkably little work had been
done on Alzheimer’s disease, which now affects
more than 245,000 Australians (and one in three
people aged over 85).
Then, in 1984, Professor Martins made the
key discovery that a protein called beta amyloid,
which occurs naturally in all of us, is what gets
out of control in Alzheimer’s sufferers, coating
the brain and disr upting its functions, causing
memory loss and confusion.
Since then his research has centred on not
only working out ways to reduce the amount of
beta amyloid in the brain, but also, crucially, on
detecting the amyloid early so that treatments
can be allowed to kick in before any actual brain
damage has occurred.
“The disease rages like a bushfire,” he says,
“and by the time there are symptoms it has
burnt out the brain, but if we can get rid of
the plaques 15 years earlier, before the damag e
has been done...”
The State Government recently granted
the McCusker Foundation $2 million to allow
Professor Martins to use one of the latest research
discoveries (made in the USA) to identify specific
markers in the brain that indicate Alzheimer’s
is starting. The pesky beta amyloid protein,
previously only definitely identified in the brains of
people who had died, can now be tagged, traced
and identified in living brain tissue long before
Alzheimer’s symptoms have kicked in.
This research project, using 1600 patients
with a family history – and therefore a genetic
predisposition to Alzheimer’s – will hopefully lead
to a simple blood test for Alzheimer’s. That, of
course, will mean that people who have more beta
amyloid protein in their brain than normal can be
started on treatments early, when they are so much
more effective. The research is right at the cutting
edge of Alzheimer’s knowledge.
“Australia is leading the charge,” Professor
Martins says, and is swift to point out that none
of the work he does would have been possible
without the ongoing support he has had
from the McCusker Foundation, ECU and
Hollywood Private Hospital, not to mention
the private benefactors who have taken an
interest in his work.
“My experience in Australia has always
been that way with a lot of g ood people
I have met who have supported me along
the way,” the professor explains. “The
McCusker family has supported me for 20 years, it
is just phenomenal.” He sparkles with enthusiasm
for his work, clearly passionate about it.
We are so lucky to have him. He certainly
started life a long way away from WA.
Born in 1957 in Bahrain, in the heart of the
Middle East, Professor Martins’ parents hailed
from Goa in India, his mother a stenographer and
his father an air traffic controller. As a Catholic,
his parents found his education opportunities
were restricted in Bahrain and so he was sent to
a boarding school in Quetta, in the Baluchistan
region of Pakistan. There he completed his
“Senior Cambridge” secondary qualifications, and
to aid his coming and going for school holidays, he
was actually given a Pakistani passport (although
he was never considered a Pakistani citizen).
It was his Catholicism that eventually led to him
coming to Australia – there was no scope for him
to become a citizen in Bahrain.
“My mum – she’s the lady with all the wisdom –
said you have g ot to be Australian,” says Professor
Martins. He had an uncle who had led the way in
the 1960s, and in June 1974, aged only 16, Ralph
came out to Perth, three months before the rest
of his family followed. Where they had never felt
quite at home in Bahrain or Pakistan, the family
immediately felt happy in Perth.
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