On the face of it Tu’uhevaha Kaitu’u-Lino is a typical Melbourne mother, working from home and wrangling her four kids through Victoria’s numerous COVID lockdown challenges.
But don’t be deceived. Tu’uhe (“pronounced ‘Two-hay’, my friends call me that”) is an associate professor leading a powerful scientific team undertaking millions of dollars worth of research at Melbourne’s Mercy Hospital for Women’s Diagnostics Discovery and Reverse Translation team.
It’s a leadership role that dovetails with the theme of Monday’s International Women’s Day - Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world - with Tu’uhe’s team looking at developing simple blood tests that could help improve outcomes for hundreds of thousands of children and their mothers globally each year.
A recent grant is helping fund the team’s search for blood biomarkers that could be an early warning of preeclampsia, caused by a failing placenta. It usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy and can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both mother and baby.
An earlier grant is funding research into a protein that is a biomarker for small babies, who are in turn at much greater risk of stillbirth.
“Our new funding means we can do really strong research to answer some of these problems,” Tu’uhe says. “Both occur because of poor placental function - you can have small babies and preeclampsia at once - also separately. But the biomarkers can be quite different.
“One of the first molecules we identified was highly associated with being born small, so it’s a biomarker we are following up now to see if we could develop it into a stillbirth test.
“And a simple blood test to identify women at greatest risk for preeclampsia would transform clinical care. Hopefully we can develop a test that will tell the doctor ‘hey this woman is high risk, keep an eye on her’ with increased surveillance based on the profile of these biomarkers.”
Tu’uhe’s father is Tongan (she delights in having given all her kids traditional Tongan names) but she was born in Melbourne. She planned to study medicine but turned to biomedical science, and undertook her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Monash University.
During her first postdoctoral job she met with a team at Monash medical centre working on “translational obstetrics”, “basically the idea of taking discoveries in pregnancy research directly from the lab into the clinic”. She joined them and the team later moved to the Mercy Hospital.
“My dream of being a doctor was always around how I could help people and I soon realised science - especially medical research - was a way of helping people beyond patient-doctor interactions, and potentially helping people right around the world,” Tu’uhe says.
Science has become her passion, and she hopes to share her enthusiasm with others, especially young women.
“One thing I am really passionate about is trying to encourage women to come into science,” she says.
“As a mother of four children I love being able to say to young women who want to have a successful career, ‘hey you can do that and you can pursue other dreams you may have in your personal lives’.
“If family is the way you want to go, it’s definitely possible as well as being successful in the scientific world.”