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Mater Pathology farewells Dr Robyn Rodwell

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Mater Pathology farewells Dr Robyn Rodwell
During Mater Pathology’s 100th birthday celebrations, the service is also bidding a fond farewell to Dr Robyn Rodwell who is retiring after 50 years, the last 20 years devoted to the Queensland Cord Blood Bank at Mater.
Dr Rodwell commenced her career as a cadet medical scientist in Mater’s Haematology Blood Bank and Microbiology Divisions where she fondly recalls working alongside the Sisters of Mercy who ran the laboratories. 
“There was no full-time staff haematologist at that time, so the Sisters set up and ran the laboratories. They were true pioneers of pathology not only at Mater but in Queensland.”
After Dr Rodwell gained her Fellowship in Haematology in 1982, she was appointed Chief Scientist of Haematology. 
The 1980s were a time of momentous change and technological advancements for Mater Pathology. Manual methods were replaced by automated workflows and efficient, accurate, and rapid diagnostic techniques. Paper-based systems were replaced by electronic systems. New tests and micro-methods were added to meet the needs of the tiny patients in the then recently established Neonatal Intensive Care Unit led by Director Dr David Tudehope. 
“Pathology is essential to understanding the diagnosis and prognosis of disease, assisting with monitoring treatments and the provision of blood products. So the advancements in pathology improved services for the doctors, nurses and their patients,” Dr Rodwell said. 
Further advancements followed the arrival of Dr Kerry Taylor as Director of Haematology in the late 1980s. 
“Dr Kerry Taylor was a great visionary. He wanted to introduce high-dose chemotherapy for the treatment of malignancies. This required autologous stem cell transplant support for patients and molecular testing for diagnosis, prognosis and monitoring of disease.
“He asked me to establish a stem cell laboratory and a molecular laboratory. I led this work with Ms Debra Taylor. Funding for the laboratories was provided through Mater Foundation research grants. 
“At that time I was Chief Scientist for the three laboratories: Haematology, Stem Cell Transplant and Molecular Haematology. Anne-Marie Kerwick subsequently managed Haematology and Debra Taylor the Transplant and Molecular Laboratories.”
Dr Kerry Taylor also had the vision for the Queensland Cord Blood Bank (QCBB). 
Cord blood banking involves collecting blood from the placenta via the umbilical cord from consenting mothers after they’ve given birth. The stem cells are extracted from the blood and cryopreserved (frozen) to form a bank of cord blood units that can be accessed by doctors anywhere in the world who are searching for a match for a patient requiring a stem cell transplant as an alternative to bone marrow transplant. 
“Cord blood banking is the ultimate form of medical recycling,” Dr Rodwell said.
“Dr Taylor realised that Mater had the largest obstetric hospital in Australia and the expertise to process and freeze the stem cells. At that time, most placentas were being discarded as medical waste.”
Dr Rodwell was tasked with setting up the new laboratory. Mater Foundation and its CEO Nigel Harris led the drive for funds. QCCB was established with grants from the Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland, the Lions Clubs of Queensland and Northern New South Wales, Lions Medical Research Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Charities and other community groups. The unit has been government-funded since 2001.   
Dr Rodwell has been Scientific Director since 1997, and Director since 2008, of QCBB at Mater.
Today, stem cells from cord blood provide life-saving therapy for patients with diseases including leukaemia, immune deficiency disorders, bone marrow failure syndromes and certain other malignant and genetic disorders. 
“For many patients, stem cell transplant from cord blood is the last treatment option when all other therapies have failed or when a bone marrow donor cannot be found,” Dr Rodwell said. 
“Current results indicate that for patients who received a cord blood unit provided by QCBB, the three-year survival is 75 per cent for children and 53 per cent for adults. Many of the patients are now alive 10 and 12 years post-transplant.”
Dr Rodwell said QCBB has been “a wonderful Mater collaborative project working with the obstetric and neonatal teams and their patients—the mothers who generously donate their baby’s cord blood. And Mater Pathology provides much of the testing required to ensure the safety of the cord blood for use in transplantation.”
Dr Rodwell also acknowledged the excellent support of the bank’s management team, Medical Director Dr Clare Morgan, Production Manager Phillip Johnson and Quality Manager Jim Ramsay, the collection teams at Mater Mothers’ Hospitals and Logan Hospitals and the laboratory team. 
She also acknowledged their significant contribution to the bank’s success in undergoing regulatory inspections. The bank has had inspections by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) without citations and in 2018 was the first bank in the world to undergo Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT) accreditation (against more than 1000 standards) without citations. 
Queensland Cord Blood Bank at Mater is one of three public cord blood banks in Australia (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne), collectively known as AusCord, of which Dr Rodwell is Chair. She was recently Project Manager leading a national government-funded project to align cord blood operations across the three Australian public cord blood banks. 
Dr Rodwell is a cord blood bank inspector for FACT, Vice-chair of the FACT Education Committee and was on the Steering Committee for development of the 7th Edition of the NetCord-FACT international cord blood standards. 
In addition to her clinical work, Dr Rodwell has been involved in education, holding appointments as Adjunct Associate Professor at Griffith University, Nathan (School of Natural Sciences) and Queensland University of Technology (School of Biomedical Sciences). Her PhD related to the role of laboratory investigations in the diagnosis, monitoring and therapy of neonatal sepsis.
As Dr Rodwell prepared to farewell Mater on 27 November, she reflected upon her extraordinary career and the opportunities she has had in medical science, research and education at Mater, the wonderful services provided by her colleagues across Mater, her legacy and what Mater Pathology and the Queensland Cord Blood Bank at Mater means to her.
“I’ve always been motivated by trying to improve patient outcomes and save patients’ lives, albeit from a distance, either through better diagnostic techniques or through cellular therapy or other treatments. 
“My passion has been obstetric, paediatric and neonatal haematology, oncology and cellular therapy and the cord blood bank has allowed me to combine my research and interests.”

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