Diagnosis change: Giving hope to women around the world
The first in his family to go to university, Professor Ian Jacobs graduated from Cambridge University in 1980 with a BA in Medicine and a relentless desire to have a positive impact on women’s health.
“Studying medicine at that time was quite divorced from clinical practice,” says Professor Jacobs.
It was his training in obstetrics and delivering babies that gave him the rare chance at “doing something useful”, and inspired him to pursue a career in clinical medicine specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology.
In 1991, Professor Jacobs began specialist training in surgery for women's cancer at St Bartholomew's Hospital, and the Royal Marsden Hospital, London. By 1995 he was co-inventor and patent holder of a test for ovarian cancer screening.
Ovarian cancer is the seventh most common cancer in women worldwide, and only 30 to 50 percent of sufferers survive five years, even today.
Finding a way to detect and diagnose the cancer early and save lives has been Professor Jacobs’ passion for 30 years.
As a medical student in the early 1980s, Professor Jacobs visited Kenya as part of an elective subject, and was moved by the suffering of the people. Twenty years later, upon setting up the Institute for Women's Health at University College London, an opportunity arose to work alongside Dr Anne Merriman, seeing him return to Africa where he established the Uganda Women’s Health Initiative (UWHI) in 2006.
“The focus of the initiative was obstetrics, care of the new born, education, palliative care, radiotherapy, and importantly, setting up a screening service for ovarian cancer,” says Professor Jacobs.
In Uganda, cervical cancer is the largest cause of death from cancer among women.
“The scale of the problem was, and remains, enormous,” says Professor Jacobs.
Of the 3,577 women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in Uganda, 2,464 die from the disease – a death rate of 35 per 100,000 (compared to 2 per 100,000 in Britain).
The programme has now screened over 20,000 women and for Professor Jacobs, “It’s the most effective thing I have ever been involved in,” he says.
Professor Jacobs has also just completed one the largest clinical trials in history, screening 200,000 British women between 2001 and 2015. The results, published in December 2015, provide encouraging evidence of a potential reduction in mortality rates by 20–25 percent.
“It’s a very big step forward for a disease where ordinarily 60 percent of women diagnosed will die within five years,” says Professor Jacobs.
One of his top priorities for UNSW, as published in the UNSW 2025 Strategic Plan, is to work with disadvantaged and marginalised communities both in Australia and around the world.
“We’re looking to do that across the Asia Pacific region but we are also, at the very early stages, exploring what UNSW can do in Africa, and specifically Uganda,” says Professor Jacobs.
Having only arrived in Sydney in 2015, Professor Jacobs has made his mark on the landscape. Significantly, he continues to be an advocate for women’s health and taking this message to the world, ensuring it remains a key issue for the medical fraternity.
In 2015, he worked alongside his local and international colleagues to lobby stakeholders to bring the 2021 World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) to Sydney, which will see approximately 7,000 of the world’s leading obstetricians and gynaecologists converge on the city.
The world’s largest and most important obstetrics and gynaecology conference, the bid received overwhelming support from both the Australian Federal and New South Wales (NSW) State governments.
“Every day approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and 99 per cent of these occur in developing countries. Events like FIGO shine a light on these issues and bring together global leaders and the best in Australia, to work together to improve health outcomes,” said Professor Jacobs.
Unsurprisingly, given the successes of 2015, Professor Jacobs has kicked off early in 2016 with an exciting initiative to pave the way for UNSW’s 52,000 students to access international learning.
In February, he was back in the UK to launch the new global university partnership, PLuS Alliance. The alliance brings together Kings’ College London, Arizona State University, and UNSW to help find research-led solutions to global challenges, such as global health, sustainability, renewable energy and innovation in technology.
“Through all of this we’re creating opportunities that would not have existed for one university on its own,” says Professor Jacobs.
Adding to his achievements in 2016, in March, Professor Jacobs was appointed to an Australian-first panel of experts to measure the value of university research. The panel, announced by the federal government, will assess research performance to better understand why it lags behind international competitors on commercialisation and industry engagement.