Prof Chris Cowell: His legacy to research and child health

14 December 2021
Researcher Profile

After more than a decade as Director of Research for the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network (SCHN), Professor Chris Cowell has decided to trade in his busy work days for a well-earned retirement in the country.

With a passion for his role and the future of research, his impact on SCHN has spanned 40 years, beginning at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in 1982. In that time he has driven change and steered the Network towards becoming a leading child health research intensive organisation.

“We are so grateful for all the Network has gained and I would like to thank Chris for the enormous impact he has made on paediatric medicine and research during his time,” said SCHN’s Chief Executive Cathryn Cox. “Chris has been a generous friend, colleague and mentor to so many, as well as an outstanding clinician and researcher."

He can be acknowledged as a true champion of all forms of research, including his leadership of Kids Research, fundamental to its success.

“That’s where my passion for research comes in, to make change. We deliver wonderful high quality care and provide a holistic multidisciplinary empathetic service. But if we can bring about change with new medical technology, advanced therapies or preventive interventions that would lead to a substantial difference, well that would be the Holy Grail,” Prof Cowell said.

“Chris has provided tireless advocacy for research and helped navigate partnerships and competing interests. You know for a children’s hospital to be internationally recognised, it is through research and innovation rather than clinical care, and he has been a primary voice promoting research. I am sure he can reflect on the amazing changes that have happened in the last 30 years in paediatric medicine, and in 30 years’ time paediatric medicine will probably be unrecognisable to us, and that is what is exciting,” said Russell Dale, Clinical Director of the Kids Neuroscience Centre (KNC).

Prof Cowell kick-started an exciting era with the 2021-2025 Research Strategy with a focus on the four pillars of innovative research: People, Partnerships, Population and Practice and Precision Health. This includes the development and implementation of novel gene therapies for children with rare genetic disorders and cancer, seen in the recent success on gene therapy as an effective treatment for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and blinding eye conditions.

“Over time I’ve become particularly aware of the strength of basic science research across the precincts at SCHN, at Westmead, Randwick and more broadly. The opportunities these precision based advancements offer for young people, whether it’s with cancer, rare diseases, infectious diseases or immune-related problems, is extraordinarily exciting and one of the reasons I’m so keen to get out of bed each day,” he said.

Prof Cowell’s leadership has been complemented by his emphasis on nurturing effective partnerships with hospitals, independent medical research institutes and academic organisations locally, nationally and internationally.

“Chris was instrumental in bringing the Network together under the umbrella of research. Through his leadership, he rebranded Kids Research and developed an ambitious and exciting strategy to make SCHN a research intensive organisation. Through his leadership in research, he leaves a lasting legacy that will benefit the children that we care for and paves the way for training and developing the research leaders of tomorrow,” said Prof Adam Jaffe, Paediatric Respiratory Consultant at Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick.

"We have been incredibly fortunate to have Prof Chris Cowell at the helm of paediatric research in NSW for the past decade. With an exceptional intellect and the highest level of integrity, Chris has always been a passionate advocate for the importance of research that benefits children, a unifying force, a selfless enabler of others, and the consistent voice of calm reason. We have greatly appreciated his close and highly collegial working relationship with Children's Medical Research Institute (CMRI), as well as his invaluable input into Westmead Research Hub and Luminesce Alliance," said Prof Roger Reddel, Director of CMRI.

Prof Cowell has built a career upon a long line of achievements. In 1997, he was the driving force behind the establishment of the Asia Pacific Paediatric Endocrine Society. This was a new regional society with an aim to promote the interests of a large part of the world which was until then unrepresented, and without Chris’ tireless efforts it would have never gotten off the ground.

He also established the Diabetes Day Care program, which back in the 1990s was considered an almost radical way to care for newly diagnosed diabetes. He led the department in establishing this program and influenced the hospital to support its establishment.

“It’s a 24 hour a day disease and despite the encouraging advances particularly around technology, we’re still quite a long way from having a medical management that would make life so much more improved and easier for young people with Type 1 Diabetes. So, when you work with children and teenagers with a chronic disorder where it affects them every day of their life, it’s pretty easy to be driven to try to make a difference,” he said.

His vision and persistence led to the establishment of the Bone and Mineral Service at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (CHW). This was a new specialty in paediatrics at the time, and a service which has since gone from strength to strength. He’s also made a lasting impact on areas including vitamin D deficiency, growth hormone treatment, measurement of body composition and in the management of insulin resistance and obesity. He can be distinguished as a great example of a clinician researcher whose clinical observations have led to important research studies and whose research is integrated back into routine clinical care.

Aside from these vast contributions, he’s also made an enormous impression on those around him. He has been a teacher and mentor to many at the Network, in Australia, through the Asia Pacific, and across the globe. Of note, between 1986 and 2010 he was involved in the training and mentoring of 34 paediatric endocrinologists, who now work all over the world.

“I am honoured and grateful to say I am one of these and Chris was pivotal in mentoring me as a fellow and sparking my interest in the field of growth and growth hormone,” said Prof Geoffrey Ambler, Clinical Prof Paediatrics and Child Health at CHW.

“One of Chris’ greatest strengths has been his mentorship of many people. This reflects his generosity of spirit. He has also championed many women along the way, at a time when others did not always do that,” said Prof Louise Baur, Consultant Paediatrician at CHW.

“As a leader he gets excitement out of people doing well, and by doing that he gets the best out of everyone,” said A/Prof Sarah Garnett, Paediatrics and Child Health at CHW.

“One of the best parts of being in the research leadership role is the opportunity to work with amazing people who want to deliver incredible outcomes for young people, who are absolutely driven and realise sometimes it takes a long time to get an outcome that has a great impact. Just working with really smart, highly capable and highly passionate individuals is one of the pleasures of my life,” Prof Cowell added.

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