If you can’t breathe, you can’t do anything

Nov 4 2022

“Breathing is inherent to life. Breathing disorders such as asthma and COPD (chronic pulmonary obstructive disease) rob people of many aspects of life that we take for granted,” Professor Vanessa McDonald said.

The world-leading researcher was named HMRI Mid- Career Researcher of the Year in 2021. Vanessa leads the Asthma and Breathing Research Program at HMRI, which is focusing on developing individualised approaches to improve people’s quality of life. Australia has one of the highest incidences of asthma in the world, so help is needed.

With more than one person dying of asthma every day in Australia, a number Vanessa describes as "unacceptably high", improved treatment is needed.

She says older people, particularly women, are at the most risk. She’s passionate about care that focuses on the needs of the patient and helps them manage their symptoms so they can enjoy life.

Her research falls within a treatment paradigm called “Treatable Traits”. The program has been designed to address the complexity of chronic airway diseases and develop personalised, rather than generic, treatments that address the unique clinical, biological, and psychosocial needs of each patient.

Breathlessness is a common problem for asthma sufferers, and it can make activities that we take for granted very difficult.

This includes basic tasks like showering. The process of undressing, drying off and redressing can be exhausting.

Patients can be too embarrassed to go for a walk with friends or go to the movies because they get embarrassed about becoming breathless. It even affects intimacy and sex.

Vanessa would like to be able to develop ‘targeted interventions’ that focus on the needs of the patient, improve symptoms and give patients the ability and confidence to manage these situations more successfully.

Her work focuses on what she describes as extra pulmonary traits, behaviours and risk factors, investigating the causes of breathlessness, especially in people with asthma.

Breathlessness can be caused by asthma itself but can also be due to a range of other issues, including obesity, anxiety, vocal cord dysfunction or dysfunctional breathing.

“If we can understand the driving forces of breathlessness, we can then deliver targeted interventions to improve symptoms”, said Vanessa.

“Asking someone to swallow a pill is much easier than asking someone to change their behaviour. We’re looking at developing strategies to reduce sedentary behaviour and increase physical activity through behavioural change.”

Another aspect of her research is non-pharmacological interventions for complex breathlessness.

This is underpinned by her belief that there can be much more to patient care than pharmacological treatments, although medicine needs to be part of the treatment.

Seeing the outcomes being achieved for patients by some of her mentors at the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, such as world-leading respiratory specialist Professor Peter Gibson, is what inspired Professor McDonald to pursue a career in medical research. Vanessa too, is inspiring the next generation of researchers.


Asthma facts:

  • More than one person dies from asthma everyday in Australia.
  • Symptoms include breathlessness, tightness in the chest, wheezing and coughing.
  • Self-management can lessen symptoms.
  • Exercise can facilitate better control of symptoms.
  • Treatment can include a combination of pharmacological and non-pharmacological strategies.


This story was taken from HMRI's Searcher Magazine - the Spring 2022 edition.