Battle of a beautiful mind

POSITIVE THINKING: The SA Brain Bank’s Robyn Flook, who is fighting a cancer that has spread to her own brain.Picture: DYLAN COKER

IN a tragic twist of fate, the woman who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes at the South Australian Brain Bank for more than two decades, is battling cancer that has spread to her own brain.

But it won’t slow Robyn Flook down.

If anything, the diagnosis propels her to continue, to do all she can for the families of brain donors, who are searching for answers. And for the researchers who make use of her work as they strive to cure disease, save lives and stall the ageing process that leads to dementia.

“I don’t want my Brain Bank to collapse,” she told The Advertiser.

“I think it’s too important. There’s too much we need to learn still. I’ve got too much to do.”

The Flinders University researcher and SA Brain Bank co-ordinator is staying positive and focused on the job at hand, with a fresh perspective and deeper understanding.

She was named the Unsung Hero of South Australian Science at the state launch of National Science Week on Thursday night.

When she joined the Flinders University Centre for Neuroscience in 1989, less than 30 human brains were banked. Now there are 339 brains in the collection.

She is responsible for the tissue donor program, tissue retrieval from autopsy, processing, storage and allocation of tissues to approved research projects and record-keeping.

“I’ve been a researcher all my life almost, or 26 years, so to see from the other side — as a patient — what it feels like and what you go through, it’s quite interesting,” she said.

“It’s quite an emotional time really and a terrible, terrible thing when you get the diagnosis and you know that you’re only going to get worse. So that’s difficult. Every person with a neurological disease has got that to look forward to.

“So it’s difficult until you come to terms with the fact that ‘Yeah, but I’m not dead yet and I’m strong and I’m still able to work and the doctors actually do have quite a few things to keep you going’. That’s what keeps me going.”

While she would happily donate her brain to research, she fears it wouldn’t be terribly useful. She suffers from breast cancer that has spread to her brain and her tumours are made of breast tissue and wouldn’t belong in the SA Neurological Tumour Bank she established in 2010. That’s for brain tumours, and her brain can no longer be considered “normal”, for comparison to tissue from brain disorders and diseases.

The Unsung Hero award is presented annually by the state branch of Australian Science Communicators, “to recognise those whose contribution has been so significant over a period of time that they should by now have been recognised”. Anyone with prior awards need not apply.

In this case, Ms Flook was nominated by her boss, who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I don’t like awards and I don’t like being the centre of attention,” Ms Flook said.

“I like to just get on with doing things, in the background, quietly.”

But she reluctantly accepted the nomination, “for the sake of the brain bank and the tumour bank and all those who rely on us”.

Flinders University Associate Professor Mark Slee, at the Centre for Neuroscience, said Ms Flook had been instrumental in the development of brain banking in SA and “strongly recommended” her for the Unsung Hero award.

“Robyn has demonstrated more than 25 years’ service to neuroscience, has developed and curated one of the largest brain banks in Australia, her expertise has been sought internationally and she has a proven track record in science communication and administration,” he said.

The facility also includes brain tumour tissue in the SA Neurological Tumour Bank.

It’s a job too big for one person. No one knows how the Brain Bank will manage without her.

Funding is drying up. National Health and Medical Research Council funding for the Australian Brain Bank Network ceased at the end of last year. Fortunately Flinders University came to the rescue.

Guests at the launch were also treated to a sneak preview of the Science Alive! expo at the Adelaide Showground, open to school groups today and the public on the weekend.

Source: Battle of a beautiful mind

Via: Google Alert for Neuroscience