Australian health innovations

We look at some amazing medical breakthroughs over the last 20 years.


Doctors in Australia have been forging the way in medical breakthroughs over the last two decades. Here’s a sample of what our doctors and scientists have achieved.

Spina bifida prevention

Dr Fiona Stanley discovered a low-cost prevention against this birth defect that can affect the legs, feet, bowel, bladder and brain – folate. The naturally occurring form of folic acid, or vitamin B9, folate is found in many vegetables, fortified grain products and seeds. Increased intake one month before conception and daily during the first three months of pregnancy can prevent up to 70 per cent of spina bifida cases.


In 1996 the Victorian College of Pharmacy at Monash University and Australian biotech company Biota Holdings developed the world’s first anti-influenza drug. Relenza was approved for release in 2000 and is now used in more than 50 countries. It was the first of a new generation of drugs to prevent the spread of infection from one cell to another within the respiratory tract.

HPV vaccine

Cervical cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer deaths in women. About 70 per cent of cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and, after parallel research with the US, Professor Ian Frazer’s team at the University of Queensland developed an HPV vaccine. It became available in Australia in 2007.


Professor Eric Reynolds, head of the University of Melbourne’s School of Dental Science, found a way to repair tooth enamel with calcium and phosphate from cow’s milk. His team devised a compound derived from milk proteins that could bind to teeth and provide a reservoir of calcium and phosphate to be absorbed by the enamel. Recaldent is now incorporated into products such as chewing gum, toothpaste and mouthwash.


Dr Andre Chong and his team at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne constructed a 27-millimetre-long capsule housing a tiny camera. A swallow can now often replace a colonoscopy or endoscopy, and it does a better job than both of investigating the hard-to-visualise small intestine. Every half-second, the capsule transmits digital images to a recording device. Since widespread use began in 2003, this has been a blessing for people with gastro-intestinal bleeding or suspected small bowel Crohn’s disease.


In 1992, plastic surgeon Dr Fiona Wood saw a woman at Perth Hospital with petrol burns to 90 per cent of her body. At the time, “skin culturing” technology took 21 days to develop enough skin to cover major burns. Dr Wood developed techniques that cut this to five days, which sped up healing and reduced scarring. The 2002 Bali bombings occurred before the process could be clinically evaluated, but several of the worst victims were treated at Royal Perth Hospital.

Insulin gel

Australia is giving diabetics a chance for life without the needle. This year, Melbourne company Phosphagenics will conduct the second phase of human trials for a form of insulin that can be absorbed through the skin. For both type 1 and 2 diabetes sufferers, a slow-release insulin patch could cut the need for or even replace needles.


Developed in 1998 through Polartechnics, the Sydney Melanoma Unit and the CSIRO, the SolarScan quickly detects melanomas. A camera takes a picture of a spot and stores the image on a computer, where it is enhanced. Software analyses the image against a databank to determine whether the spot is likely to be a melanoma.

Short interval training

Researchers at the Garvan Institute and the University of New South Wales devised a 20-minute workout that changed the way many think about fat loss. The routine – eight-second sprints on a stationary bike followed by 12 seconds of light cycling – produced much better results than a low-intensity 40-minute workout, and researchers suggested this would work for other cardio activities. Chemical compounds called catecholamines, which are produced from interval sprinting, are thought to drive the weight loss.

Plastic rod bone repair

By 1991, Dr Michael Ryan and Dr Stephen Ruff at Sydney’s North Shore Hospital had perfected repairing bones with plastic rods instead of metal pins and screws, which interfered with MRI and CAT scans. Several types of plastic screws are now used in orthopaedic surgery. Some are absorbed into the body, unlike metal screws, which often have to be surgically removed.

Swimsafe floatsuit

This unisex swimsuit allows kids free range of movement, but built-in flexible panels of foam make sure their head is always above water. The material also has an ultraviolet protection factor of 50+ to protect from both UVA and UVB rays. Since the Floatsuit was first sold in 1997, it has taken off around the world.

St Vincents heart valve

This artificial heart valve has saved hundreds of lives since it was developed in the early 1990s, thanks to work initiated by the late Dr Victor Chang (left). Even if just one heart valve fails, it has to be replaced. Dr Chang was concerned about the lack of organ donors and began work on an artificial heart before his death.