From hospital to hardcover: VCP alumna Susan Hurley

Susan Hurley may have transitioned from pharmacist to medical researcher to novelist but pharmaceutical science is still at the heart of her work

“People say write what you know or write what you’d like to know,” she says.

“I worked in the medical research and pharmaceutical industry for many years and wanted to take readers to that world, but really needed to have a topic that was going to be interesting.”

The disastrous first human trial of immunomodulatory drug TGN1412 in London in 2006 caught Susan’s attention.

Six healthy men ended up in intensive care with multiple organ failure after a severe immune system reaction.

“What was interesting was that the company itself had warned about this reaction in their documentation for the trial but then hadn’t taken what most people regarded as the appropriate level of care as appropriate precautions moving forward. Scientists subsequently were somewhat divided into camps, some arguing that it was foreseeable.”

That same drug profile features in Susan Hurley’s medical thriller Eight Lives. Young Vietnamese-Australian doctor David Tran has made a breakthrough drug discovery but before he can carry out the first human trials he’s found dead. The voices of friends, family and business associates tell the story.

“This is something that I really wanted to do and is quite difficult for a novelist to pull off to get readers to engage with a number of different characters but also for them to keep engaged with a story.”

Susan says she’s always wanted to be an author.

“I’ve always been a very keen reader and I read widely and I have always dreamt of being on the other side, being a writer.”

But science captured Susan Hurley’s imagination first. Susan trained as a pharmacist at the then-Victorian College of Pharmacy and became interested in research through her time in hospital pharmacy, where she designed and ran a clinical trial of asthma drug theophylline. Her trial of individualising dosages for patients with acute asthma eventually led to a complete rethink of the drug treatment.

“It showed that the drug was very toxic, too toxic to use. Even the individualising dosage didn’t make it an acceptable treatment and it’s no longer used today.”

That study became the basis of a Masters of Pharmacy degree and Susan Hurley went on to do a PhD in epidemiology and health economics. Susan became an expert in the cost-effectiveness analysis of medicines and public health programs and has worked across universities, pharmaceutical companies and not-for-profit organisations.

The breadth of this research background now plays an important role in Susan’s writing work and is set to continue with her second novel.

“That science lends itself,” Susan says. “So when people read Eight Lives hopefully they’ll learn a little bit about where their medicines come from.”

When reflecting on her Monash University student experience Susan Hurley fondly remembers making medicines.

“When I qualified everybody was a compounding pharmacist but one thing that I found frustrating in Pharmacy College was that we weren’t allowed to try anything on ourselves. So we’d make lipstick and we couldn’t take them home!” Susan laughs before explaining why.

“There was an experiment where the lab technicians made up a solution that the students did try on themselves to observe the pharmacology of a particular drug and the technician who made up the solution made an error and there was an overdose and the students were rushed to hospital. So that practice was stopped.”

That idea of self-testing is something Susan came back to when writing her debut novel.

“We try things on people who volunteer and it doesn’t always go well. There have been times in history where a scientist would test it on themselves, that was the honourable thing to do, it’s called going first and that comes up in my novel. Maybe that originated from that little experience in Pharmacy College so many years ago.”