Twenty years ago, Tim St Pierre and his colleagues were known as ‘those weird scientists who study magnetism in medicine’.
Now the global Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers not only recognises Professor St Pierre but is feting him this year as their Magnetics Society’s Distinguished Lecturer for 2014.
Professor St Pierre heads UWA’s BioMagnetics Research Group in the School of Physics which for more than 10 years has been making a real difference to medical procedures all over the world.
The clinicians who have used his techniques now have the chance to meet the man who revolutionised liver investigations and is now working on simple low cost diagnostics for the two biggest tropical diseases, malaria and schistosomiasis or Bilharzia.
He is currently in Asia, on the first of three extensive lecture tours which will take him across the globe to deliver 50 lectures in four continents over nearly six months. He is talking to physicists, engineers and medical practitioners in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.
In May he will do the lecture circuit in Europe, visiting Spain, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the UK, and taking in Singapore on the way back to Perth.
From August he is touring North and South America, starting in Brazil, where he has collaborators, and working his way across the United States for 10 weeks.
“Traditionally magnetics materials scientists have focused on technological applications of magnetism in devices such as computers and electric motors,” Professor St Pierre said. “Geophysicists have been interested in magnetism in rocks. But we are moving into a new era where we are able to detect very subtle changes in the magnetic properties of living systems and design magnetic technologies to help us diagnose and treat disease.”
He started with devising an alternative to an invasive, expensive, often painful and even occasionally fatal liver biopsy for doctors to tell how much iron is in a human liver.
“This is a necessary test for diseases such as haemochromotosis and sickle cell anaemia,” he said. “We came up with a technology that piggy-backs onto magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) because most major hospitals in the world have MRI and can easily adapt their machine to measure liver iron concentration.”
His invention has been used world-wide since 2006, with more than 20,000 tests completed. All those tests are sent back to Perth to Professor St Pierre’s public company Ferriscan, which analyses the data.
“Nobody uses a biopsy for an iron investigation any more,” he said.
With colleague Associate Professor Mike House he is working on a simple and cheap diagnostic tool for malaria.
“Malaria can be cured by drugs but the parasite can lie dormant in the patient until he or she is bitten by another mosquito, which will then spread the disease. We have developed a magnetic device to detect an infectious form of malaria parasites in a fingerprick blood test,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of this development.”
They are also working on a magnetic device to help diagnose schistosomiasis or Bilharzia, another parasitic disease that is second only to malaria in terms of its global impact.
A parasitic worm is spread by its host, a freshwater snail, in tropical regions, particularly where access to clean water and sanitation is poor. The snail enters the bloodstream and its eggs then burrow into tissue, including the liver and intestine.
“It’s an insidious disease. It can take years after the parasite has entered the body for it to develop. It can be treated with drugs, but a diagnostic tool is needed as there are no symptoms until it is too late.
“As the disease is prevalent in Africa and Asia, it has to be a low-cost option, which we can provide with magnetics technology.”
He is working on this project with colleagues in Queensland and Brazil.
Professor St Pierre’s research is supported by NHMRC, ARC and a UWA-UQ Bilateral Research Collaboration Award.