2005 Australian of the Year, co-discoverer of ReCell (a.k.a “Spray on Skin”), and mother of six, Dr Fiona Wood, talks to Maddi Howard.
As I am buzzed into the Burns Unit at PMH, I feel a wave of anxiety rush through me. Standing on the heavily bleached hospital floor, I feel overwhelmed by the hubbub of beeping machines, and conversing nurses dressed in scrubs and hairnets. I am amidst a sea of medical specialists, surgeons, dedicated to saving the lives of their patients – at PMH, these are ‘tiny humans’ who have come for treatment from all corners of WA. Heading up the team who will provide this care is super-scientist, Dr Fiona Wood. She welcomes me into her office in a once broad Yorkshire accent, now tainted by 30 years of residence in Perth. Upon first impression, I pin Dr Wood as someone who knows her accomplishments, acknowledges her invaluable contributions to science, and accepts her bounty of awards and accolades, but is not pompous about them – rather, she exudes humbleness, and quiet confidence.
As Director of Burns at Royal Perth Hospital and (then recent) co-developer of spray-on-skin technology, Dr Wood was perhaps one of the best-prepared people to handle the early-millennial emergency that was the aftermath of the Bali Bombings in 2002. Of the 28 patients that were sent from the impact zone in Bali to Dr Wood for treatment in the wake of the bombings, 25 survived. This was partly a result of the hard work of Dr Wood and her plastic surgery team, and partly due to the innovative ReCell technology that Dr Wood had on hand. ReCell was special because it “was the first real exploration of using single cells as a way of delivering messages to the wounds to say ‘heal’”. Ultimately, it meant that patients could be treated with skin grown over a matter of days and then have it sprayed on, rather than be treated with skin grown over weeks that was then grafted on. Spray on skin meant less remnant scarring and quicker response time to burn wounds – crucial factors in the survivability and recovery success of burns patients. The success of the ReCell technique was resounding, and resulted in Dr Wood receiving Australian of the Year in 2005, for her contribution to medical science and innovation.
Dr Wood has now commercialized ReCell, signing over her intellectual property to the Fiona Wood Foundation – a move that meant whilst potentially less people could access the treatment at lowest cost, Dr Wood and her colleagues would be guaranteed regular funding for further innovative research, “without being at the mercy of competitive grants.” Dr Wood maintains that the foundation has been hugely influential in ensuring ongoing research over the years, referring to it as “the vehicle through which money is allocated and directed to researchers.” She goes on to say that the foundation royalties “mean that we’ve been able to support an enormous amount of research not just around cell-based therapies…we have a philosophy that every intervention from the point of injury will influence the scar wall for life. So therefore, we should be active along the continuum. And so, we’ve been active in first aid, in community education, in pre-hospital care, intensive care, nutrition, exercise science and psychology, as well as the basic science, as well as population health. And the foundation has facilitated that, it has been absolutely fundamental in getting us to where we are now.” When asked about where the money would go for her next research project, Dr Wood detailed her interest in the interaction between pain and the nervous system. “The skin is a receptor. We know that if we are burned here, the nerve supply will be changed here and so the brain changes. And so understanding how the brain can drive healing is a really big interest of mine. I’m hoping to be able to heal without scar, and without the functional compromise. Regeneration, not repair.”
I was curious about where this interest in medical research had come from – Dr Wood was a plastic surgeon by specialty, and a great plastic surgeon at that. So, I posed the question to her – why not just be content as a highly competent, highly paid plastic surgeon? What is driving you to engage in medical research? It turns out Dr Wood is very passionate about research, explaining that she has “always been interested in the potential of science and technology – what is it? What’s cutting edge? What’s new? I like to explore what is different and what is new because I think that is where we can improve. I think that as clinicians and as leaders in health, we have to strive to always do better. So how can we strive to always do better, if we don’t engage at some level in research? I have to engage with the exploding advance in technology and information and science out there because I owe it. It’s a duty in my head to the people I treat. Otherwise, if we weren’t doing this then we would be still kind of, with leeches. Medicine changes, it evolves. We can be world’s best here. We don’t have to be the recipients of information, we can actually add to that body of knowledge. And that’s what I think is exciting, that’s what gets me up in the morning. How can I connect with knowledge? How can I extrapolate ideas?”
It is reaffirmed in my mind at this point, that Dr Wood has real visionary character. She is a big believer in hard work and grit, putting your head down and getting to it, is the path to greatness. I asked her what advice she would give her university-aged-student-self, “the best advice I had, I think consistently, from my dad and mum was to get up in the morning and enjoy what you do. And if you do that you’ll be ahead of the game. And so you have to go out and find what that is, it’s not going to drop in your lap. Underpinning that is that there is no substitute for hard work, possibly not a popular view, but you get out what you put in.” As a role model for scientists and medical students nationwide, Dr Wood is held in high regard for her achievements and advancements in burns surgery. However, perhaps this respect for Dr Wood is even greater for up and coming female scientists, who are regularly warned about the gender inequalities and associated complexities of being ‘a woman in science.’ I asked for Dr Wood’s opinion on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) movement – a current hot topic in academic and sociocultural circles, concerned with increasing the female representation in these STEM fields. Dr Wood argued that her headspace is that “life isn’t single sex”. She believes that whilst there might be some traditional beliefs and connotations about female vs male behaviour and capabilities, in the case of research and problem solving, “having bits of both is useful. I think that’s really the bottom line. You need a spectrum of opinions and personalities coming to the table to give you the best solution that will then apply to a spectrum of people at the other side.” To reinforce this refreshingly simple perspective on the matter, Dr Wood told me of a time she was asked ‘do we need to make surgery a career for women?’ Her response was apt and to the point – “we make surgery a career for people”. (UPDATED TEXT)
As I left the echoing corridors of PMH that day, I was no longer feeling anxious or overwhelmed to be amidst the everyday heroes that fight for the lives of young children in the Burns Unit. Rather, I was inspired, and gracious to have had the opportunity to interview such a prestigious surgeon. A surgeon whose footprint on the medical scene in Perth (and indeed worldwide) will undoubtedly be scribed forever in the history books, but also in the lives of the thousands of people who are experiencing less of pain, and more of life, thanks to Dr Fiona Wood’s hard work.
Interview by Maddi Howard
This interview first appeared in print volume 88 edition 4 GIRL