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The VCCS arose out of a research interest within the Department of Medicine (DOM) at St Vincent’s Hospital. In the early 1960s, the then Professor of Medicine, Carl de Gruchy, was interested in the new discipline of cytogenetics in the wake of the discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome in chronic myeloid leukaemia by Nowell and Hungerford in 1960. He invited Dr Albert Baikie to join the DOM as First Assistant and also issued an invitation to Dr Margaret Garson, whom he encountered at the International Society of Haematology meeting in Mexico in 1962, to join the group. Dr Baikie, a haematologist, arrived in 1963, having spent the previous five years working in the Medical Research Council unit in Edinburgh researching the effects of radiation He was part of the Edinburgh group that also identified the Philadelphia chromosome in 1960. Dr Garson was also highly experienced, having trained with James German in New York, and T.C. Hsu in Houston before establishing a cytogenetics laboratory in the Research Hematology Department of the University of Texas at Galveston. She joined Dr Baikie in 1964 to create a cytogenetics group in Melbourne.
Initially it was just the two of them plus a PhD student, Sandy Spiers, and a Master’s student, Sandra Weste. They inhabited a couple of small laboratory spaces in the Clinical Sciences Building. One of their first projects was a buccal smear survey of every patient admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital to ascertain the frequency of sex chromosome anomalies. But the primary focus of the research team was the chromosome abnormalities seen in malignant haematological disorders – an exciting frontier with multiple international groups seeking to understand the genetic causes for cancers. When Dr Baikie left in 1967 to become the first Professor of Medicine at the University of Tasmania, Dr Garson inherited the laboratory and, from just a single technician in 1967, grew it considerably over the following years. Throughout the 1970s, most of the department was engaged in research and supported via research grants but, by 1976, the Hospital and Charities Commission of the State Government of Victoria formalized Dr Garson’s appointment as Director of the department. Notable scientists include Trish Michael who joined the laboratory in 1978 and Fran O’Malley who joined in 1980 and rose to the position of Principal Scientist. Trish Michael’s retirement at the end of 2017 led to the appointment of Karen Dun. Karen Dun was previously in charge of the Cytogenetics Department at the Royal Hobart Hospital, Tasmania and is an assessor for the Australasian Society of Diagnostic Genomics (ASDG) Quality Assessment Program.
With the advent of the International Workshops on Chromosomes in Leukaemia (IWCL), from 1977 to 1987 (Dr Garson was the only Australasian representative on the IWCLs), the clinical utility of chromosome analysis for patients with haematological malignancies was increasingly recognized, and more staff were employed to undertake patient analysis. By 1988, the department had outgrown its rabbit warren of rooms on the third floor of the Clinical Sciences Building and moved to a purpose built laboratory on the top floor of the Pathology building. Dr Lynda Campbell joined the laboratory in 1988 as a Keogh Fellow, funded by the Anti-Cancer Council, and took over as Director from Margaret Dr Garson at the time of her retirement in 1992. In 1993, the department was recognized as a state wide reference centre for cancer cytogenetics by the Victorian Health Department and was renamed the Victorian Cancer Cytogenetics Service (VCCS).
Over the following decades, the VCCS saw growth in both staff numbers and the numbers of patient tests performed. In 1995, the VCCS joined the other pathology departments at St Vincent’s on the second floor of the new Inpatient Services Building. Fluorescence in situ Hybridization (FISH) testing was introduced in the 1990s and conventional cytogenetic testing became increasingly automated, although still reliant on skilled analysis by cytogeneticists. Dr Meaghan Wall joined the department as a clinical research fellow in 2009 and succeeded Lynda Campbell as Director in 2015 when she retired. When Meaghan Wall left in Feb 2019 to pursue a new role, the director’s position was temporarily held by Dr Paul Waring. This role is currently shared by haematopathologists Dr Slavisa Ninkovic and Dr Edward Chew.
As the department approaches 60 years old, it strives to remain patient focussed and aims to provide the best practice in cancer cytogenetics for the State of Victoria. From its humble beginnings, cytogenetics is now an established test for patients with haematological cancers and widely available to Victorians.