Introducing HMRI’s Mid-Career Researcher of the Year in 2022, Professor Pradeep Tanwar: A non-linear thinker

Sep 14 2023

Mid-Career Researcher of the Year in 2022, 42-year-old Professor Pradeep Tanwar, says that the women’s health research being done at HMRI and University of Newcastle is on a par with that of Harvard University in the USA and Cambridge University in the UK.

He would know – he’s studied at both.

Pradeep is a perfect example of what can happen when someone with global experience decides to call Newcastle home. He says it’s an underappreciated city, but it offers exactly what he needs. “It takes me 17 minutes to get to work. I don’t have time to spend an hour in traffic,” said Pradeep. I have a demanding job and I have a family. You can’t just switch problems on and off – I work 12 hours a day. The quality of research here is as good as what we were doing in Boston but I have a much more balanced lifestyle, a big team and access to resources.”

Growing up in Haryana, an agricultural province in Northern India, Pradeep knows what it means to have limited access to things. His mother was a multipurpose health worker who was the only person looking after the residents of ten nearby villages. She was absolutely overrun by demand.
“My mother offered family planning and birth control, vaccinations and general medical support like wound care. She would also give part of her salary away to women who couldn’t afford birth control or to send their kids to school. She was genuinely interested in making sure people didn’t suffer.”

Pradeep’s path to becoming one of Australia’s foremost gynaecological experts wasn’t a linear one. He originally studied veterinary science at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW. He then received a research fellowship at Harvard University and moved to the other New England in the U.S. This is when his work first crossed over into humans. “The reproductive systems of animals and humans are quite similar,” he says.
He then became a researcher in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Massachusetts General Hospital, a ‘mecca of health research.’ He says that the hospital environment provided the ‘perfect storm’ of conditions for cross collaboration between doctors and researchers. “All the doctors at the hospital were required to do a year of pre-clinical research. You would have all these medical doctors and PhDs in the lunchroom which meant we were close to where the action was. If you want to solve problems, you need to talk to the person who is going to apply the technology,” said Pradeep. “It means you don’t waste time working on things that won’t work in the healthcare system.”

After six years in Boston, he moved to Newcastle because he knew ‘what makes a program work’.

“You need close working relationships between the university, the researchers and the hospital. We have that here at HMRI.”

While there was a time when he was ‘$500 away from closing the lab’, the increased interest in – and funding support for – women’s health has meant that he now leads a team of 30 people. They’re working on finding diagnostic tests for endometriosis and ovarian cancer, as well as genetic tailoring for drug treatments for gynaecological cancers. Endometriosis has been around for as long as humans. They’ve identified endometriosis in mummies in Egypt. It affects at least one in nine Australian girls, women, and those assigned female at birth, plus 196 million worldwide, but it hasn’t attracted adequate research attention and funding because it’s non-fatal.
This is a cause of frustration for Pradeep. “This is a condition that makes life hell for a huge number of women,” he said. “We can go to the moon and back. We can develop electric cars. Any major achievement in human history has taken a long-term investment in research and funding. This is what we need for endometriosis.” “NSW has the most endometriosis patients but there’s no comprehensive place to study. We’ve had to start from scratch by collecting blood and tissue samples. I would love to set up a dedicated endometriosis research centre here in Newcastle.” Another focus of Pradeep’s team’s work is finding an early detection test for ovarian cancer. “Most women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are aged between 50–65 years-old. This means they have been through menopause,” said Pradeep. “If we could detect ovarian cancer earlier, we could remove the ovaries because they are non-functional at that age and significantly reduce the risk of the cancer spreading. Most women who die from primary ovarian cancer [around 60% of cases are fatal], die because the cancer has spread to organs like the liver, lungs and pancreas. It’s almost like dying from appendicitis.” “I can’t tolerate same thinking. Problems need to be solved with non-linear thinking.”

Pradeep, who starts work at 3.30am, says that morning is the best time for creativity, as well as meetings with international colleagues. It’s also a sacred time before his two-year-old and five-year-old daughters wake up. But work never really stops for Pradeep. “Work is not work for me. If I’m doing science, I don’t really care when or where I am doing it. I get so much joy out of it.”