Prof John Simes awarded AO


On Australia Day 2020, Director of the CTC, Prof John Simes, received an Order of Australia award (AO) for his service to education and medicine in cancer research and clinical trials. John talks about how his 30-year career began, who inspired him, and some key lessons learned.

How did you decide to embark on a career in clinical trials?

As a medical registrar I first became involved in clinical trials in cancer with Professor Martin Tattersall at RPA who was leading several clinical trials at the Ludwig Institute. I was then successful in becoming a Research Fellow at Harvard University where my supervisor was Prof Marvin Zelen. He encouraged me to learn more biostatistics and clinical decision analysis. Out of these experiences I became especially interested in how trial evidence can best inform clinical practice, instead of just relying on opinion or medical dogma. Prof Zelen also encouraged me on my return to Australia to aspire to become a Professor and set up a national clinical trial centre.

How did the CTC come about?

When I came back from Harvard, I continued working on clinical trials at Ludwig Institute at the University of Sydney, working to progress more clinical trials in Australia. I was encouraged by several people to write a position paper for the NHMRC on the need for establishing a national clinical trials centre. It ended up 16 pages long. The NHMRC decided to provide funds for such a centre and called for applications. My colleagues told me I better apply for the role! They and I believed there was a genuine need to base medical decisions on good clinical trial evidence. There still is and will always be this need.

Who has inspired you?

Professors Zelen and Martin Tattersall were huge influences on my early career, but there have also been many others, including Alan Coates (Sydney University), Rob Califf (Duke University), and John Zalcberg (previously Peter MacCallum Centre), to name just a few. It has been a privilege to work with so many great people at the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre and with investigator and clinical researchers around the world in the clinical trials field. It has also been inspiring to see the many younger investigators, research fellows, PhD students and study coordinators who all have all played important roles in clinical trials research.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned in your career?

There are two. Firstly, not to be disheartened or close minded when you get negative results from a trial. Instead of a fail, they are an opportunity to learn something new and interesting, be it developing new methods or further research, or identifying that some treatments are not as effective as expected. By being open minded you can learn something completely different. Secondly, don’t underestimate giving encouragement and inspiring confidence in others, particularly as a mentor. This was a huge influence on my career.

How does it feel to receive an AO?

It has been humbling to receive congratulations from so many people across the span of my career in a matter of days. I must say I would not have received this award without the efforts of the many collaborators in Australia and around the world I have worked with in my career. Success in clinical trials is the result of collaborative effort. By working with others, you can make a difference to health outcomes.