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Home » Analysis » Glaswegian doctor behind bionic heart inspires Catholic professionals

Glaswegian doctor behind bionic heart inspires Catholic professionals

Dr John Fraser

Centre stage: Professor John Fraser (right), on stage as guest speaker at the recent Assembly of Catholic Professionals lunch. He was interviewed by Brisbane Archdiocese’s Communications general manager Michael Crutcher.

BRISBANE-based Professor John Fraser has published more than 200 academic papers and his medical research includes multi-million dollar projects including the development of a ground-breaking bionic heart.

Some of his research ideas and collaborations across Asia and North America are pushing the boundaries of medical science with the promise of saving countless lives.

His medical work has also taken him on many humanitarian missions to Africa. 

And yet this energetic Glaswegian, husband and father of five, almost gave up his medical training in Scotland to become an actor.

Listening to Prof Fraser speak to a 200-strong audience of the Assembly of Catholic Professionals in Brisbane last week, it was easy to imagine how he could have found his fortune on stage as a stand-up comedian and storyteller.

Instead he persevered with medicine, and thousands of patients are grateful he did.

Prof Fraser told the ACP crowd how he met the Sheikh of Qatar while pursuing his latest medical venture. 

Prof Fraser is developing a portable device, which could revolutionise emergency treatment of cardiac arrest patients. 

It would allow tiny particles of adrenalin to be blown directly into the lungs, delivering a massive heart-starting hit of adrenalin within two minutes of the cardiac arrest.

The device could potentially replace defibrillators in offices, hotels, clubs and other public venues. 

A few months ago, Prof Fraser received a late-night phone call from one of the sheikh’s staffers with a business proposal to help develop the cardiac arrest device. 

On the spot Prof Fraser agreed in principle to the deal as long as it included tickets to the next soccer World Cup in Qatar. 

Prof Fraser admitted to being a football tragic and that his business acumen sometimes let him down. 

He leaves his company deal-making to his highly accomplished wife Katrina.

However, within 36 hours Prof Fraser had flown first class to Doha for a private audience with the sheikh. 

And after the multi-million dollar deal was clinched, the sheikh presented Prof Fraser with a gift befitting his medical breakthrough idea – a $28,000 watch.

“I don’t wear a watch … I don’t know what to do with it,” quipped Prof Fraser.

“My 20-year-old, my 18-year-old and my 15-year-old have got dibs on it apparently.

“But I said (to one of my sons); Where’s your phone?  

“I’ve lost it,” his son replied

“Where are your shoes?” 

“I don’t know.”   

“And you think I’m going to give you a $28,000 watch?”

Dr John Fraser

Saving lives: Professor John Fraser.

Prof Fraser grew up in a Catholic family in a tough, sectarian part of Glasgow and attended a Jesuit-run school.

“It was the east end of Glasgow,” he said, “where the life expectancy was 54 – lower than in East Timor.”

He said the school blazer he wore had a Latin motto stitched on the pocket, which translated into Glaswegian read: “Hit me, I’m a Catholic”.

He recalls that he wasn’t good at sport and in the eyes of his father, a keen Celtic supporter, he had to settle for second-best – a career in medicine.

Prof Fraser first went to Africa as a wide-eyed teenager keen to contribute to improving global health. 

His long-term work in hospitals in Uganda improving lung functioning, has directly contributed to extending life expectancy in impoverished communities.

Prof Fraser met his wife on a bus, while travelling the world, and eventually they married and settled in Brisbane.

His doctorate on burns and smoke inhalation injury, completed at the University of Queensland, resulted in multiple publications and an international patent. 

Prof Fraser went on to become the pre-eminent staff specialist in intensive care at the Prince Charles Hospital, where he founded and leads the multi-disciplinary Critical Care Research Group, the largest group of its kind in Australasia.

This group has seven purpose-built labs for studies of molecular science, medical engineering, hearts and lungs, and cell culture.

Prof Fraser currently supervises more than 20 doctoral, Masters and honours students in medicine, surgery, basic science, engineering and allied health fields. 

Since its inception in 2004, the group has earned more than $29 million in grants and industry funding.

But perhaps Prof Fraser’s greatest achievement so far is his collaborative work in the design and development of BiVACOR, the world’s first artificial heart.

The project is the brainchild of Brisbane engineer Dr Daniel Timms, and Prof Fraser has been involved since the project started in 2001.

If successful, the device could provide a real alternative to organ donation for hundreds of thousands of Australians diagnosed with heart disease every year. In 2012, more than 20,000 Australians lost their lives to heart disease, 14 per cent of all deaths.

The small device, about the size of a fist, is completely implanted inside the body and attached to the natural heart.

It mimics the pumping fluctuations of a normal heart and is expected to not only add an extra 10 years to the lives of recipients, but also improve their quality of life, reducing shortness of breath, tiredness and swelling.

Tiny electromagnets allow the pump’s twin rotors to alter speed and position to suit blood flow demands depending on a patient’s activity.

Research and testing the BiVACOR is continuing in Texas.

In January last year, a combined surgical team from Brisbane, Texas, Sydney and Melbourne successfully implanted the device into a live and healthy sheep. 

The operation was carried out in Brisbane’s Prince Charles Hospital.

Dr Fraser believes the artificial heart could be available for human trials in three to four years.

Written by: Mark Bowling
Catholic Church Insurance

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