DEAKIN UNIVERSITY lies just outside the small town of Geelong, an hour’s train journey west of Melbourne on Australia’s south coast. Road traffic is light and the squat, modern buildings of student, arts and science blocks barely disturb the peaceful Victoria countryside. It is not the sort of place where one expects to find major research going on.
But it was to Deakin’s little campus that Professor Michael Briggs came in 1976. His background was beyond reproach. The British scientist had a string of publications on the contraceptive pill. To Fred Jevons, Deakin university vice-chancellor, he was the sort of academic who might put the university on the map.
“It was Briggs who really started to get research going, and who built up the school of sciences into what it is today,” says Jevons. “He brought funds from drug companies to buy equipment for students to work with. Personally, he was charming and we often had dinner together.”
Briggs, now aged 51, assumed the post of professor of human biology and head of the sciences school. His teaching duties were extensive, mainly coaching Ph.D students in biochemistry. But he was also able to continue work he had begun in Zambia four years previously on one of the most remarkable series of research publications that has ever been produced.
Under his authorship, or jointly with his wife, Dr Maxine Briggs, he produced over 10 years some 55 research papers, and almost as many detailed reports in letters to science or medical journals. Most were on various aspects of contraceptive safety. Briggs’s particular speciality was in subtle blood chemistry changes that might predict long-term risks from the pill.
He was also a special adviser to the World Health Organisation and was often seen at European or American gatherings of endocrinologists - the hormone specialists who dominate contraceptive science. At these meetings he brought a new prestige to Deakin University, and, among senior hormone researchers, won a tremendous personal regard.
It was around 1982, however, that the warmth of his reception began to decline by degrees. Briggs was not alone in the scientific areas on which he wrote. Rivals began to wonder about some of his results. Not only were a number of his findings questioned, but so were the means by which he so swiftly published them.
“It was incredible, unbelievable, the things he was reporting,” says Dr Bryan Hudson, who lives in Melbourne, and who was at the time president of both the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the International Society of Endocrinology. “Our professional colleagues abroad were saying they simply did not believe that he could do major studies in the way that he described.”
CONCERN over the long-term risk of the contraceptive pill has been rising during its 25 years in use. Few doctors doubt that health hazards exist, and product information supplied to them is required to point this out. What remains in doubt is what balance can be struck between risks and benefits.
The incidences of cervical and breast cancers among pill users have been raised, doubted and raised again. Just as important are the connections feared by doctors between taking the pill and the development later in life of heart attacks, strokes and raised blood pressure. These are grouped together as vascular disease.
Since the pill’s introduction, research findings in this area have been important in leading to a progressive reduction in the hormone content of the contraceptive pill to reduce the risk. In 1969, the British government’s safety watchdog said that the hormone oestrogen should be reduced. In 1977, a study by the Royal College of General Practitioners led to efforts to cut the other hormone in pills, progestogen.
But cuts in hormone content can only be pursued to the point where the pill remains effective. Because taking the pill also affects menstruation, settling a regular cycle through hormone control, varying the chemical content of pills can also cause erratic, breakthrough bleeding.