Wood’s burning passion

By David Kavanagh | posted on August 9, 2019

WORLD leading burns specialist Fiona Wood will take to the podium at the Albany Entertainment Centre next week as part of the Great Southern Speaker Series.

The 2003 and 2004 Western Australian of the Year and 2005 Australian of the Year is best known for her work in cell-based therapy and her invention of the ‘spray-on skin’ technique known as Re-cell which greatly reduces permanent scarring in burns victims.

Professor Wood spoke with the Weekender about gender diversity in the fields of science and medicine, her career and hopes for the future and the relevance of her work for regional Australia.

“Like many things in life, if you believe you can do something you will do it,” Ms Wood began.

“As a society we need to think about facilitating people to be the best they can be and that means instead of saying girls don’t do something, encouraging them to have a go.”

The current board member of the Fiona Wood Foundation commenced her medical career at St Thomas Hospital Medical School in London where she was immediately drawn to plastic surgery.

She moved to Australia in 1987 and four years later became Director of the Burns Service of Western Australia and began training as Western Australia’s first female plastic surgeon.

“That was a long time ago, we’ve got lots of plastic surgeons who are female now,” she said.

“While today you can still go into an engineering lecture and it’s predominantly male, that is changing and slowly we’ll get there.

“Surgery should be a career for people, whether you’re male or female, and it should be facilitating those who have the capacity, the interest, the skill and the intellect to do it.”

Professor Wood was thrust into the national spotlight in October 2002 when the largest numbers of survivors from the Bali bombings were transported to Royal Perth Hospital.

She would go onto save a total 28 patients, some of whom had burns covering 92 per cent of their body, deadly infections and delayed shocks.

“It’s been my focus to try and reduce the suffering [from burn injuries], not just in that painful early stage but across life.

“In the last 30 years there’s been a huge drive to shift the paradigm from survival to the quality of survival. We’ve done a lot of work in cell-based therapy, scar minimisation, and exercise as a tool to reduce the profound muscle wasting and long- term impact burn injuries can have.”

Professor Wood said she expected further significant advancements in the next 30 years and pointed to the potential of harnessing the “systems biology approach” to tailor treatment to each individual.

She said this “precision medicine route” would involve taking into account things such as a person’s genetics, past history and all of their body systems to ensure they have the best outcome.

According to Professor Wood, the field of burns medicine is particularly relevant to communities in regional Australia.

She said the great distances between towns in rural and remote areas rendered people especially vulnerable to the short-term and long-term effects of burn injuries.

“Every intervention from the point of injury will influence the scar worn for life. Therefore the first aid, what’s done in the community, sets you up for success or not,” she said.

“We understand that vulnerability and since the 1990s have focused on education and organising travelling roadshows around WA.

“We also have a very vibrant Telehealth system that involves video links [with doctors and specialists] and photograph review over time.”

City of Albany Executive Director of Community Services Susan Kay said 57 people were hospitalised with burn injuries in Albany between 2012 and 2016.

“Professor Wood’s work in advancing the treatment of burns has helped revolutionise the care of burns patients in hospitals across Australia and enabled the majority of patients to return to a normal life,” she said.

“Her spray-on skin invention has helped to treat more than 1000 patients around the world.

“We’re very pleased to be hosting Professor Wood as part of National Science Week to share some of her knowledge and experiences with the Albany community.”

Professor Wood’s special presentation will take place at Albany Entertainment Centre at 5:30pm on August 15.