Conjoint Professor Dedee Murrell from UNSW Sydney has been awarded the Medical Dermatology Society (MDS) Lifetime Achievement Award.

With only one recipient each year worldwide, the Lifetime Achievement Award is the most prestigious award of the MDS. The Award acknowledges a lifelong commitment to providing care to patients as a medical dermatologist, mentoring future medical dermatologists, and undertaking research to advance the field.

Prof. Murrell is an internationally recognised dermatology expert specialising in blistering skin diseases. As well as leading research at UNSW Medicine & Health, Prof. Murrell is the Head of the Department of Dermatology at St George Hospital and Honorary Professorial Fellow at the George Institute for Global Health.

Since the MDS established the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, Prof. Murrell is one of the first women and the first individual outside of the US to receive it. The Award will be presented at the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) Annual Meeting on 7 March 2024 in San Diego.

Inspired by dermatology

After studying medicine at Cambridge and Oxford Universities and relocating to the US, Prof. Murrell started further training in dermatology. According to Prof. Murrell, being a visual learner contributed to her interest in the specialty.

“When I first experienced dermatology, I realised that to see the disease you could just look at the person. I was really attracted to the visual aspect of it,” Prof. Murrell says.

“Part of it is also that I love understanding complex things… A lot of skin diseases are related to processes that are going on inside the body. You have to love internal medicine and proceed with various investigations. We don’t understand what causes a lot of skin diseases.”

Studying blistering skin diseases

During Prof. Murrell’s dermatology training, she quickly became interested in blistering skin diseases. These are rare conditions that have genetic and autoimmune causes, which can be present at birth or arise throughout life.

“Blistering skin diseases are rare, but the genetic ones (called epidermolysis bullosa) have a high mortality in children. In many countries, children with epidermolysis bullosa never live to be adults,” Prof. Murrell says.

After working for several years as a clinician-scientist in the US, Prof. Murrell was recruited with her husband to UNSW and St George Hospital. Prof. Murrell set up a lab to research blistering skin diseases, which was initially more focused on basic science and became more translational over time. 

Paving the way for clinical trials

One of Prof. Murrell’s major contributions to the field has been pioneering the development of standard disease definitions and outcome measure for blistering skin diseases.

“In order to get new treatments approved for skin diseases, you have to have a way of defining the stages of the disease and scoring the patients… You can’t do a sponsored clinical trial unless you have validated scores that say how severe the skin disease is,” Prof. Murrell says.

“No one had done any of that work for blistering skin diseases, whereas it had gone ahead for psoriasis, eczema and many common skin diseases.”

International Blistering Diseases Group (IBDG) meeting in 2018 in San Diego. Supplied

Prof. Murrell had to persuade international dermatology colleagues to take an interest in developing and agreeing upon disease definitions and outcome measures. This was challenging as many of her colleagues were focused on basic science rather than clinical work, and there was no funding support to organise the international meetings.

“I was able to bring these international colleagues together who initially were a bit resistant… It required us to be a group of people working together rather than people competing for grants,” Prof. Murrell says. 

The first meeting of the International Blistering Diseases Group (IBDG) was held in Paris in 2006. Over the subsequent years, Prof. Murrell and her colleagues were able to develop internationally agreed upon disease definitions and systems for scoring patients, for several blistering skin diseases.

This paved the way for clinical trials to evaluate new treatments. For example, the drug Rituximab was approved for the treatment of pemphigus vulgaris in the US in 2018 and Europe in 2019. This was the first approved treatment option in more than 60 years for patients with the disease.

Inspiring others

Prof. Murrell mentors emerging medical dermatologists from around the world and helps them to get more involved in research. This month, Prof. Murrell is hosting students in her lab who are on scholarship from India, Nepal, Spain and Uzbekistan.

Prof. Murrell also works with UNSW students completing their PhDs, Masters degrees and Independent Learning Project (ILP) (which is undertaken by fourth year medicine students). 

“I love mentoring young people and so I belong to a lot of these international societies that  offer mentorships and encourage young people to get experience doing research,” Prof. Murrell says.

“I do my best to try to inspire potential dermatologists to get involved in research to make a difference.”

Prof. Murrell with John Frew and her research fellow, Linda Martin, in 2007, when John won the St George Hospital Medical Association Young Investigator Award for medical students. John is now an MD PhD academic dermatologist at UNSW and Liverpool Hospital, focusing on hidradenitis and Linda is Associate Professor of Dermatology at UNSW and Director of Dermatology at the Melanoma Institute Australia. Supplied