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07 Nov 2018
Opinion Piece

Science for economic impact and patient care

  • Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
  • Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre
  • Walter and Eliza Hall Institute
  • Australian Cancer Research Foundation
  • Cancer Therapeutics CRC

November 2019

Last week I attended the inaugural Advances in Cancer Drug Discovery and Development Symposium, jointly presented by Cancer Therapeutics CRC - (CTx)Merck Sharpe and Dohme MSD, and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre alliance. The event focused on converting local science know-how into commercially viable products, thereby providing greater access to effective therapies for patients.  The meeting was preceded by the announcement that Melbourne-based Cancer Therapeutics CRC has signed an agreement to enable Pfizer to develop novel cancer drugs, resulting in a $20M upfront payment and up to a potential $648M in development and sales milestones.

In opening the symposium, Brett Carter, chief executive officer of Cancer Therapeutics CRC commented on Australia’s strength in scientific research, but also pointed out our nation’s struggles to convert success at the bench into quantitative growth and commercial business establishment in the Asia-Pacific region. He commented that for every US$100m of research expenditure, the US generates seven times as many start-ups and five times as many patent filings as Australia.  

Brett explained that the new Pfizer collaboration and licence agreement, together with the three prior deals for CTX technology, has the potential to return a billion dollars to Australia. He said: “[These are] funds that will help support the biomedical sector and that can be ploughed into new drug discovery programs; providing opportunities for the world class team we have developed, and potentially leading to the delivery of new treatments for patients and economic benefits for the nation.”  

Commercialisation is a key opportunity for VCCC members, and I am pleased the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) and the Biomedical Translation Fund (BTF) is seeking to provide an environment for this to occur through investment.  Many of you have gainfully embraced collaboration as a developmental driver in the last decade so we can look to the future with commercialisation as the next frontier. 

It was interesting to reflect, while in the company of MSD guests, that seed funding to support Scottish-born Australian immunologist Professor Ian Frazer’s research into the cervical cancer (HPV) vaccine came from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) funds.  Over 150 million doses of vaccine have been delivered worldwide to date and thanks to Australia’s free national immunisation program, we are set to be the first country to effectively eliminate the disease.  Such has been the success of the Gardasil vaccine that early last month the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved expanded use of GARDASIL9 from MSD to include women and men aged 27 through 45 years.  

We are delighted that the ACRF has invested in two key platforms across the VCCC membership.  The ACRF Tumour Heterogeneity Program, led by A/Prof Sarah-Jane Dawson, involves researchers from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) and the University of Melbourne who have joined forces to work towards a better understanding of the diversity of evolutionary changes that result from tumour heterogeneity.  Their work will be critical to the development of strategies that overcome or exploit this diversity, to ultimately improve patient survival across many cancer types.

The ACRF Translational Protemics Facility is the first facility in Australia with the capability for protein-based assays that will complement the increasing use of genomics to inform the treatment of cancer patients with targeted cancer therapies. The facility will support the management of patients involved in clinical studies and trials by measuring biological responses to treatment. The facility operates under a model of distributed laboratories at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the Bio21 Institute and the University of Melbourne to maximise access for cancer researchers from across the VCCC alliance to this specialised equipment.

Last month the ESMO 2018 Congress in Germany featured presentations from many researchers from across the VCCC alliance. One highlight for me was a Phase III trial presented by Dr F André from the Institut Gustav Roussy of a selective inhibitor of PIK3CA in patients with hormone receptor positive advanced breast cancer, showing for the first time major impact of a PI3K-inhibitor on clinical outcome in patients with PIK3CA mutations.  This is further demonstration of the power of personalised medicine. 

During the month, I also attended the Society for Melanoma Research Congress in Manchester.  Some stunning science was presented from microbiome to metabolism but what stood out to me was a hugely popular session on women in science where issues such as bias in publications and grants, and programs to support women with young children were addressed.   It was wonderful to see Professor Georgina Long elected as Society President, becoming the first woman and first Australian to hold the position.  Professor Long was awarded her FRACP in 2008 and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health & Medical Sciences.  We should all think about nominating our younger leaders across the VCCC for Fellowship of the Academy and I would be delighted to discuss potential nominees with colleagues. 

In closing, I urge those who attended the Advances in Drug Discovery and Development Symposium, and others who work in the field to consider a role in shaping the Drug Discovery and Development subject in the new 2019 Master of Cancer Sciences Course.  Applications are open until 23 November.

A further opportunity is also currently offered in the role of VCCC Research & Education Lead Breast Cancer. The 0.2FTE position will provide the unique opportunity to provide leadership for the research and education aspects of the tumour stream and provide strategic direction across the alliance, while continuing your current role  Applications are open until 28 November. 

I am looking forward to engaging with our R&E Leads and other alliance leaders at the first Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre Leadership Summit later this month, to plan our efforts for 2019 and beyond.   

Professor Grant McArthur
Executive Director