Dr Laura Ross announced as the 2023 TJ Martin Award winner


Pictured above: Dr Laura Ross

The 2023 TJ Martin Award has been presented to Dr Laura Ross for her PhD studies investigating the development of a multi-system disease activity index in scleroderma patients and the effects of scleroderma on the heart, showing the benefits of assessing patients under conditions of exercise stress.

The overarching aim was to create a method of measuring patient improvement in response to a novel treatment administered during a clinical trial, based on how activity impacts their organ function.

The doctoral study – Addressing Knowledge Gaps in the Assessment of Disease Status in Systemic Sclerosis – earned Dr Ross, a Rheumatologist at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and Project Lead, the prestigious accolade.

Now in its 18th year, the TJ Martin Award is presented to the author of the best PhD thesis completed by a St Vincent’s campus researcher over the past 18 months, as selected by a panel of independent judges.

“It is a real honour to receive this award and to have my research recognised in this way. The previous recipients are an impressive group of individuals and many have gone on to have very successful research careers,” said Dr Ross.

The PhD focus

In Australia, about 5500 people have scleroderma – an autoimmune disease that affects almost every organ in the body. Currently, there are limited treatments available and patients have severe impairment of their day-to-day functioning.

A major focus of Dr Ross’ PhD was to look at the impact and burden of scleroderma on the heart. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of patients’ hearts was performed and results highlighted the almost universal presence of heart muscle scarring in patients with scleroderma. 

“We also noted through our research how profoundly physiologically impaired patients with scleroderma actually are, including from the time of disease onset,” said Dr Ross.

For the first time, this study showed a link between a higher burden of scarring of the heart muscle and more severe impairment of exercise capacity.

“What we discovered is that for many of these patients their resting tests look normal but under exercise stress we saw that these same patients were significantly impaired, to such a degree that they are likely to be physically disabled,” said Dr Ross.

She hopes the new activity index they have developed as part of this study will help with the trialling of novel therapeutics in the future. 

“The trialling of medication in scleroderma has suffered for a long time because we don’t have well validated and robust methods of measuring the change and improvement in disease. Due to this, a lot of clinical trials suffer from measurement error.”

The activity index was presented in May at the EULAR Congress, in Milan, where Dr Ross was awarded a prize as one of the most notable research abstracts at the event.

“We are now working with collaborators in North America to implement the activity index into the protocols of some upcoming randomised controlled trials of new drugs to further validate the index and prove its utility in a clinical trial setting,” Dr Ross said.

The study was led by St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

Celebrating research innovation and excellence

The TJ Martin Award is named in honour of Professor Jack Martin who was the Director of St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research from 1988 to 2002 and contributed extensively to research on bone.

This year’s award was presented to Dr Ross during ACMD Research Week at St Vincent’s, an annual event led by St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne to celebrate and recognise research innovation and excellence underway across the hospital’s precinct, in the clinics and in partnership with its co-located research institutes including the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery (ACMD).