The Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation 2018 honours have gone to researchers whose work will help protect babies now and into the future. One has already contributed a lifetime to helping women with epilepsy have healthy babies. The other is at the beginning of ground-breaking research on preventing brain injury in preterm infants.
The BGRF Medal has been awarded to Professor Frank Vajda AO, for his dedication to helping women with epilepsy have children. His seminal work in the pharmacology of anti-epileptic drugs has provided critically important insights into the effect of drugs on unborn babies and has changed the treatment of epilepsy in pregnancy across the globe.
A neurologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Professor Vajda has also contributed to the pharmacology of other drugs to treat progressive neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Motor Neuron diseases as well as headache and a variety of non-neurological disorders.
Presenting the BGRF medal on behalf of the Foundation, Professor Terence O’Brien, a previous winner of this prestigious medal, reflected on Professor Vajda’s remarkable contribution. ‘We owe a great deal to Professor Vajda’s insight and initiative. He led the charge internationally to understand the complications associated with epilepsy drugs and pregnancy and established the Australian Pregnancy Registry (APR), the world’s most comprehensive pregnancy epilepsy database, now based at The Royal Melbourne Hospital.
This database, established 15 years ago, has been fundamental in making Melbourne one of the world’s greatest epilepsy treatment centres. The epilepsy team is able to use it to significantly reduce the incidence of birth malformations.
Accepting the BGRF Medal Professor Vajda said that the desire to start a family for women on epilepsy medication can be fraught with fear. ‘We are making great progress in helping these women to deliver happy and healthy babies, but there is still much more to be done.
‘I have great confidence in my colleagues and the new talent coming through in Melbourne that we will continue to break new ground and eventually reach a world where people are not limited by epilepsy.’
Over his career Professor Vajda has been involved in 25 clinical trials. The impact of his work can also be seen in his prolific publishing achievements as he has edited 15 books and authored or co-authored over 350 publications.
Frank Vajda expressed his thanks and paid tribute to the many colleagues, mentors and students who have accompanied him on this journey, including his staff, European colleagues and his family.
Professor Vajda’s work has been recognised internationally by many awards, including the Ambassador for Epilepsy Award, the highest honour of the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE). A recipient of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2012, he has also just been appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his distinguished service to medical education in the field of clinical pharmacology and the genetics of epilepsy, and for the promotion of humanitarian values.
The Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation awards this medal and a $5,000 gift for an outstanding contribution to clinical research in progressive neurological disorders, stroke or palliative care. Past winners have included the cream of Australia’s research community such as Professor Ian Maddocks, Professor Claude Bernard, Professor Frederick Mendelsohn, Professor Colin Masters, Professor Geoffrey Donnan, Professor Sam Berkovic, Professor Philip Beart, Professor Stephen Davis, Professor Linda Kristjanson, Professor Trevor Kilpatrick, Professor Ingrid Scheffer, Professor Kathryn North, Professor Roberto Cappai and Professor Terence O’Brien.