He’s been at the forefront of a number of breakthrough developments in cardiovascular research over his career and is still leading research into heart disease today. But you wouldn’t know that if you passed him on the street.
Professor Andrew Tonkin is a humble man with a soft voice. A few years ago he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to medical research and has also twice been awarded the RT Hall Prize, the major research award of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand, and also the Sir John Loewenthal Award, the major award of the Heart Foundation.
His association with the Heart Foundation started in 1963 when he won a six-week vacation scholarship. He was 18 at the time. Indeed he was just led to think about research, thanks to funding from the Heart Foundation.
Professor Tonkin became interested in becoming a cardiologist because of a number of major developments in cardiac care in the 1950s and 1960s.
These included the feasibility of inserting catheters in the heart and doing coronary bypass surgery, the possibility of resuscitating and defibrillating people if they had a cardiac arrest, artificial cardiac pacing and the concept of Coronary Care Units.
“I was very impressed by the fact that cardiovascular disease was one speciality where you could really achieve a lot in terms of what was available to treat people,” Professor Tonkin said.
Professor Tonkin has been involved in many large scale clinical trials some partly funded and supported by the Heart Foundation. The biggest was a trial that extended the benefits of cholesterol lowering therapy in patients after a heart attack, to people who would previously not be regarded as having high cholesterol levels.
“That trial, which I was fortunate to lead for many years, found that a statin or cholesterol lowering drug had major benefits on outcomes and saved lives when given to people who had a heart attack or were at high risk of having one. This was a major breakthrough and led to a change in the PBS eligibility criteria for subsidies of statins, and the study also had an impact on international guidelines.”
Currently he is involved in a trial of aspirin and statins in older people who are apparently healthy and is also involved in a trial to see whether pneumococcal vaccination might help prevent a heart attack and stroke in middle aged people who are apparently healthy.
Professor Tonkin rates the Heart Foundation Research Program very highly saying the return on cardiovascular research which the Heart Foundation supports is the greatest out of all areas of research in Australia.
“The Heart Foundation doesn’t just support the big research groups, it supports research that might then lead to early findings which might be pivotal as the initial part of a major invention.
“The Heart Foundation enables people to gather critical data, in particular, data which is novel, and which may be extremely important.
He says the Heart Foundation’s Research Program is also important because it supports and takes an interest in talented individuals, especially early and mid-career researchers.
“They are the ones most under threat because it’s difficult to get funding from bodies such as the NHRMC when they’re competing with more established senior researchers. The policy of the Heart Foundation in supporting and investing in such people is visionary and extremely important and covers all areas of cardiovascular research - basic, clinical and population health research.”
Professor Tonkin says there is still a major need for more research into cardiovascular health, there are new approaches to be explored and new factors to take into account.
“There’s not going to be a one size fits all, in terms of population health, and I believe very firmly that we should not just adopt Australia wide approaches to prevention of a problem such as heart disease because we have to examine our strategies according to the degrees which they impact on those who are most vulnerable.”