Patients the centre of the universe for Brisbane Professor John Fraser

John Fraser

Professor John Fraser is just as comfortable dining with the heads of the royal family in Qatar as he is saving lives, conducting ground-breaking medical research, or tending to his illustrious football career as the top scorer in the over-35 team (Division 5) at the Newmarket Soccer Football Club. 

Based in Brisbane with his five children, the Glaswegian professor has published more than 300 medical research papers, is a professor at five Australian universities, head of intensive care at Brisbane’s St Andrews Hospital, a pre-eminent specialist in intensive care at Prince Charles Hospital and also heads up the Critical Care Research Group (CCRG) that he founded which operates out of Prince Charles Hospital and St Andrews Hospital.

Raised on the stories of his grandmother’s experience as the first female doctor at Queen’s University in Belfast, Prof Fraser said a career in medicine was always on the cards; despite his successful acting career which took him to Russia to perform with the Moscow Art Theatre alongside Daniel Craig of James Bond fame.  

While his acting career eventually took a back seat, his medical career took off – for which countless current and past patients and recipients of his research are no doubt thankful. 

At the core of his professional career is an intense desire to make life better for people, no matter where in the world they live.

Whether he’s treating the sickest of the sick in intensive care, working on cardiac patients who’ve suffered of heart or lung failures or children with pneumonia in Africa, or leading one of the world’s best cardiac research facilities, it’s the patients at the forefront of his mind.

A fact that is evident in his latest research and development projects which include an app to help measure “delirium” or acute brain failure in intensive care patients; a device to get adrenalin into the lungs of people suffering from cardiac arrest; or a method to keep transplant hearts and lungs alive and working for as long as possible so they can successfully be transplanted into patients who need them.

As head of the CCRG, one of only six National Health and Medical Research Council Centres for Research Excellence, Prof Fraser supervises a team of 20 engineers, 18 biological scientists and 20 clinical staff looking into innovative and life-saving initiatives and technologies focused on the heart and lungs.

At any one-time, members of his team of doctoral, masters and honours students are developing research projects including whether or not the heart has smell receptors and what this means for our health, how to get an artificial heart to mimic the stresses and strains a normal heart would face in various situations (for example in pregnancy or walking upstairs), or using stem cells to grow hearts and lungs. 
World-changing stuff. The stuff of science fiction. Only it isn’t science fiction at all. It’s reality for this group of whip-smart researchers – and it’s based in Brisbane. 
Prof Fraser prides himself on finding people who know more, or have the abilities to find out more than anyone else in the world – all in the name of improving survival rates and reducing mortality rates around the world. 

“We have a huge amount of innovation going on here,” he said. “In 10 years’ time, from Brisbane I want to have created a global network of world leaders. People who started here but are working all around the world.

“I have created this focus on best-in-class whether they be medics and nurses and allied health, engineers or scientists. I wanted to create a nidus of brilliant people that can all work seamlessly to improve outcomes. To thrive, not just survive.”

His aim is that when they all eventually move on to other things, working around the world, they will still carry their Brisbane experience at the CCRG close to their hearts and be able to call on each other to collaborate on projects. Projects that will be saving and improving lives. 

Just down the corridor from his CCRG members, in two small rooms, is his new “business innovation hub”. This is the yet-to-be-named medical startup company he has developed along with his new business manager, Tamara Mills. It is this group that has created a device with the potential to reverse the shocking reality that 95 per cent of people who suffer from a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital will die.

“When your heart stops, oxygen stops going to your brain and the brain is really oxygen dependant, so you really can’t survive a minute without any oxygen,” Prof Fraser said. “If your kidneys are starved of oxygen they can recover, if your lungs or heart are starved of oxygen they can recover, but your brain is non-recoverable.”

Called the DMC (De Motu Cordis –  Latin for “the movement of the heart”). It is a device designed to rapidly get adrenaline into the heart of someone suffering a cardiac arrest.

“The whole idea of this device is that my mum, who can’t work an iPhone, can work it,” Prof Fraser said. “It’s small and plastic with a dose of modified adrenaline in it, so that when a person arrests (has a cardiac arrest) in front of you, you basically pop it into their mouth and you press a button and the adrenalin goes into the device and you blow the adrenaline into their mouth.”

The group is tweaking the device and working through the process of getting it to market. 

Prof Fraser scoured the world to find the team behind his new venture. In fact, Tamara Mills was the brains behind a similar medical innovation research hub in Canada and was this year chosen over 6000 hopefuls to attend the Brisbane leg of the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. Not only was she successful in being awarded a coveted place on the programme, her own idea won the global competition.

As well as the DMC, Prof Fraser said the new medical business group was working on up to four other ideas. 

“What we are trying to do is to make a company of best-in-class medical innovation from Australia and beyond and then attract high-net-worth investors to put funding into it,” he said. “Then to mitigate and minimise any risks, we will have key medical opinion leaders and key industry opinion leaders and we will ask them to look at what we have and see if it is substantially better than anything else around the world, or ask them what it needs to make it the best in the world.”

From its location on the northside of Brisbane, Prof Fraser sees this latest endeavour as a prime opportunity to provide innovative solutions to improve survival and reduce mortality across the globe. 

The fledgling business has attracted the attention of investors like the royal family of Qatar, who once phoned Prof Fraser at 3am offering his support for the venture. 

Of course, Prof Fraser accepted, as long as the Sheikh threw in tickets to the World Cup Final and a game of football with soccer great Gianfranco Zola.

“The Sheikh said we should meet up and I said sure whereabouts and he said in Doha, on Saturday,” Prof Fraser said. “At the time it was 2am Friday and I go ‘Saturday, as in next week’? And he said no Saturday as in tomorrow.” 

When he’s not working in intensive care at Prince Charles Hospital, overseeing the team at the CCRG or his new medical start-up company team, Prof Fraser is the Director of Intensive Care at Brisbane’s St Andrews Hospital.

“I still love that work and it is actually where the best research ideas come from, because we are always thinking how can we make things better for the patients,” he said. “The patient should always be at the centre of the process but at the moment the patient is a passive recipient of health care and we need to make them an active participant. 

"There is no other industry where, for want of a better word, the customer is not asked what they want. I know what I want as a doctor, but I spend 12 minutes at the bedside. The nurse knows what he or she wants but they spend 12 hours at the bedside. The patient will be there for 12 days and no one has asked them what they want.”

Improving the outcomes for patients lies at the heart of why Prof Fraser does what he does, and he hopes it will be his main legacy.  

Utilising a team of researchers within the CCRG, he is running another project focusing on the needs of patients, designed to give people a voice when they are suffering from delirium, or as Prof Fraser calls it “acute brain failure”. It is an app to diagnose delirium, and if so, to what degree.

“We see so many patients in intensive care who have this delirium, we don’t have a well validated tool to assess it in the critically ill. If we can’t diagnose or measure things, it is hard to treat or assess the success of that treatment,” he said. “We’ve always just said, ‘oh he’s not quite right’, but when you talk to patients they are actually petrified about it.

“We used to think it goes away but you can actually show there is a mortality cost, so if you have delirium you have an increased risk of death.”

The delirium app is in the testing phase with a plan to roll it out across Brisbane, Australia and then the world. It will be available at no cost and picture-based, which will enable it to be used in any country without the need for translation.

Perhaps one of Prof Fraser’s most well-known achievements was his work with Brisbane engineer Daniel Timms on the BiVACOR – the world’s first artificial heart, which is now based in Texas and progressing through its testing phases. Prof Fraser and his CCRG team are also at the forefront of research and practice to prolong  the life and viability of donor hearts and lungs to increase the number of organs available for transplants across Australia. 

“I’m the professor so I’m meant to be the cleverest, but I am the dumbest one here and each day I come in and meet people who know so much more than me and I learn so much from them,” he said.

With the patient in mind, Prof Fraser has plans to continue his research work and his passion for finding the smartest-of-the-smart researchers he can both nurture and learn from with the aim of improving lives and reducing mortality.

“I will always remember what John McCarthy (the late director of intensive care at the Prince Charles Hospital) used to say and that was that the patients give us so much more than we give the patients,” he said. “So, as a clinician, when you see people die that shouldn’t die, well we are here because of all the people who came before us and all of the advances that have occurred and that, to me, is what research is.”