Holding up his side of the bargain
Professor Cameron Simmons, his wife Dr Sarah Dunstan, and middle-daughter Lola all know how it feels to have dengue fever. He remembers it being a miserable week, feeling dreadful with flu-like symptoms however, he is grateful for two things: the very useful gift of a patient’s perspective - “especially when the PhD students were bleeding me dry”; as well as the good fortune of not developing potentially life-threatening Dengue Shock Syndrome.
Cameron and his family spent the past 12 years in Vietnam pursing research designed to improve the management of dengue patients and stop its transmission in the community. He is recognised as an expert with a holistic understanding, from the end of the hospital bed to the lab - giving him a perspective that continues to frame his research priorities.
Cameron’s research aims to create a set of diagnostic and prognostic tools to address the problem that there is no current way of knowing which dengue cases are going to go “downhill” quickly and slide into Dengue Shock Syndrome, one of the most common causes of death in children with the disease.
Additionally, Cameron is working with the Eliminate Dengue Project to perform field trials in Vietnam and Indonesia of Wolbachia mosquitoes; these mosquitoes cannot transmit dengue. This technology offers the promise of significantly reducing the dengue disease burden.
Cameron says he is trying to make an impact in two to five years because “there are expectations to have an impact quickly and that’s a reasonable expectation.
“It’s a bit different from the norm - slightly edgy - and part of the contract you enter into when working in a developing country like Vietnam. People are collaborating with you to get a job done. You have an agreement with each patient. They consent to sample collection and enter clinical trials. The patients take risks,” he says.
“I’ve scratched my head many times over the mysteries of Dengue,” he says. “It’s been an eye-opener and being on the ground in South-East Asia for some of my time now gives me an urgency and clarity about the critical questions. It motivates you.”
No one could doubt that this global tropical disease specialist is motivated. He is also extremely well regarded and connected, both here and abroad. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, nominated Cameron for the 2013 WIRED Smart List of “fresh-thinking people with transformative ideas who are going to make an impact on the future”. He was one of 50 people profiled in the annual list.
After a decade in Vietnam with Oxford University, Cameron returned to Victoria to work at the Nossal Institute for Global Health and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, taking up his veski innovation fellowship in June 2012.
“Coming back to a big institution, veski was a ray of light in the first 12 months,” he says. “The veski element added another layer; a sort of ‘welcome’ doormat. It also offered a network and not just in a scientific way. I’m interested in meeting non-science people in the commercial world and veski offers introductions into that world, too”.
In 2014, Cameron was one of the first researchers to move into the new Peter Doherty Institute.