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Medical research too crucial to risk on budget politicking

Date

Phil Hogg

For want of a better cliche, the proposed $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund really could be a "win-win" for Australia. But only if its architects get it right.

As a cancer researcher, I have experienced first-hand the frustrations that drive important Australian medical discoveries offshore, or leave them stranded in the lab.

If we want to develop and deliver new lifesaving Australian drugs, therapies and diagnostics tools – and build a home-grown, high value Australian biotechnology industry in the process – we need to take a long, well-informed look at the barriers along the arduous pathway from the lab to the clinic. That is, the point at which new drugs, therapies and diagnostics start to save and improve lives and to generate financial returns.

Australia has no shortage of insightful, creative researchers who are producing a steady stream of promising basic medical research outcomes. And although access to research funding through the federal government-supported National Health and Medical Research Council is increasingly competitive, much important early stage research does secure support.

Take the University of Queensland’s Gardasil, for example, the internationally adopted Australian vaccination against the virus that increases the risk of cervical cancer. All the critical foundation research was funded by us, the Australian public.

Where Australia trips up and suddenly drops from above average, globally, to below average is in the critical early clinical trial phase. It takes millions of dollars, plus the right infrastructure and the right people with the right skills, to turn a newly discovered molecule that kills cancer in the test tube, for example, into a new drug or therapy that can safely and effectively kill or contain cancer in patients.

Our experience at the University of NSW reflects the limitation of Australia’s funding model. A new drug we invented that stops tumours from metabolising sugar, so denying the cancer cells the energy they need to divide, went to Britain for clinical testing. This was simply because no public or private venture capital funds were available to us. A second generation compound is now being trialled in seriously ill cancer patients in Australia, but only due to support from the state government and several philanthropists.

Likewise, a new class of drugs that selectively targets the structure of the cancer cell has been largely underwritten by decades of small-scale community fundraisers and donations from many ordinary Australians through a philanthropic fund set up over 20 years ago by hospital bus driver Col Reynolds, who was determined to help sick kids.

The proposed Medical Research Future Fund is a historic opportunity to swap this time-consuming, unreliable scrabble for funds that all medical researchers know only too well, with the certainty Australia needs to ensure our world-class discoveries are translated into real health and economic gains.

Britain and the US have well-structured systems for funding early stage clinical trials which, if the trials prove successful, can then go on to be commercialised by locally based pharmaceutical companies. Australia is, of course, a much smaller nation. But in biotechnology size is no barrier.

Denmark, Israel and Switzerland, all much smaller than Australia, each have pharmaceutical companies in the world’s top 20. Denmark's Novo Nordisk, for example, employs about 40,000 people in highly skilled, well-remunerated jobs in Denmark and more around the world.

Given the proposed Medical Research Future Fund is currently linked to income from the highly contested Medicare co-payment, there’s undoubtedly plenty of politicking ahead. The proposed fund, however, is far too important to be caught up in the post-budget arm wrestling. Well designed, it’s an unequivocally good idea that’s long overdue.

Even the commitment of a small portion of the $1 billion of annual funding envisaged to early stage clinical trials could go a long way. If Australia picked its 20 most promising discoveries to go into clinical trials at a total cost of between $60 and $100 million a year, only one success would be enough to return that investment, in terms of local jobs and patent income.

Ideally, successful new Australian drugs and therapies could then be developed onshore, paving the way for the emergence of a local pharmaceutical industry that could help keep our talented researchers in Australia and bolster high-tech manufacturing; that is, help build exactly the kind of clever industries we need.

Professor Phil Hogg is Director of the Lowy Cancer Research Centre at the University of NSW and an NHMRC Senior Principle Research Fellow. He leads a team of cancer researchers developing breakthrough therapies for cancers that do not respond to conventional treatments.

9 comments

  • A Great Big Dose would have been mighty handy after waking on Sunday morning to Aunty's 0600 News Service to hear a self congratulatory Abbott in a Churchillian Moment.

    Commenter
    Geronimo
    Location
    Yippee Yi Yo
    Date and time
    June 16, 2014, 7:36AM
    • The increase in medical funding was a cynical attempt by a cynical government to disguise its
      trashing of science, and to mask its anti-science position on climate change, its cuts to
      university funding and its creation of two tier higher education.

      We won't be fooled LNP, and we will vote you out at the earliest opportunity.

      Commenter
      Fed up
      Location
      Canadia
      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 6:50PM
  • Professor Hogg, the medical and research communities really need to become a lot more vocal about this whole medical research fund issue. Maybe it is a good idea for boosting medical research but who exactly is going to get this money? Like many Australians I am deeply disturbed by this governments duplicity and lies and fear that this is just one more area with a hidden agenda. Recently, a government Minister, in reply to a general question on the ABC about funding cuts responded with a statement along the lines of 'Oh, but we are setting up the medical fund which will pour millions into pharmaceutical research.' Why specifically 'pharmaceutical' research? Does this mean funds for existing pharmaceutical companies that might just happen to be Liberal supporters? Exactly how much will go to independent university research or to hospital based research (which my specialist tells me is sorely needed) are questions you need to ask. Unfortunately mistrust runs deep and I fear this is really just another 'fly by the seat of their pants' policies that hasn't been thought through properly.

    Commenter
    JennyO
    Location
    Sunbury
    Date and time
    June 16, 2014, 8:01AM
    • Perhaps, but medical research needs strict policing to eliminate duplication and nonsense. One health researcher at Sydney, not from the Med School but an honoured one, may be winning the race to see who can invent the most new psuedo diseases and syndromes.

      Commenter
      gjh
      Location
      2000
      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 10:11AM
      • Just nonsense. If researchers produce nonsense it doesn't get published. To many Aussies live on hearsay etc.

        Commenter
        Fed up
        Location
        Canadia
        Date and time
        June 16, 2014, 7:03PM
    • The politicking of the medical research is one thing, but I think the policy is flawed for other more fundamental reasons:

      1) The demand for projects stemming from a $20B fund will greatly exceed the capacity of the research community. Even the interest on $20B is enough to fund 5,000 researchers. I doubt there are enough good ideas or researchers. This will result in a drop in standards and/or taxpayer funds going to more an more flakey/tenuous research ideas. This is not a good use of public money.
      2) Many of the great gains in health have come via research in other areas anyway, so why limit the scope of research?
      3) This policy is implemented at a time when other research is being cut. Why is the Commonwealth effectively favouring research in one area over another?
      4) Much of the research will ultimately go to areas that trigger very expensive health care, probably in the twilight of our lives. This simple means we are spending lots of Government revenue on ideas that will trigger the need for even more Government expenditure. Is that just fiscally reckless?
      5) Research into drugs and vaccines is great, but the commercial benefits will go to the multinational drug companies (as they develop the ideas into commercial products). What is being implemented to ensure the benefits of the research are being captured in Australia?
      6) Surely the best economic returns on health expenditure are keeping the general public healthy (better education and worker productivity outcomes). So investments in primary and general health care are likely to provide better returns than more (often speculative) research?

      I really don't think this idea has been thought through at all.

      Commenter
      Cynic
      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 10:31AM
      • @Cynic, my understanding of the fund is exactly that, it is a fund which used to fund research. Medical scientists won't get $20Bil to play with, only the interest/profits are available to them. The real problem is that this won't make much difference because interest/profit will return about $1Bil starting in 2020-something and that's not much more than what is currently available through the federally funded National Health and Medical Research Council ($500-700Mil).

        Currently the NHMRC funds less than 20% of proposals submitted to it each year and consequently good people with good ideas are forced to leave medical research. So even if the NHMRC get to keep their monies and this new fund is added on top Australia will be dumping only 60% of good ideas, so don't for a minute think there aren't enough good people with good ideas to make use of this fund.

        Also $1Bil is a pittance (<0.2%) of our GDP compared to the ~8% we currently spend on primary health care.

        Commenter
        Shlik
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        June 16, 2014, 3:17PM
    • This funding is urgently required to find a cure for the chronically self-serving ideological expediency syndrome afflicting Federal Cabinet

      Commenter
      KEEPITREAL
      Location
      SYDNEY
      Date and time
      June 16, 2014, 2:03PM
      • I would like to know who proposed this scheme. My suspicion is that it is a party with an interest in shares or financial planning which can see the commissions on managing a $20B fund flowing relentlessly into its coffers. There is already too much money from the Future Fund and superannuation funds sloshing around the market.

        Medical research should be funded from general revenue as we all benefit from it. An increase in income tax and company tax in tandem with reductions in tax deductions could fund the research and would be worthwhile as the benefits to Australia from having a healthier population and income from all the patents would increase our well being.

        What would happen if the fund did well one year? There is no guarantee that government will not take a “dividend” when it suits?

        Commenter
        diana watson
        Location
        lindfield
        Date and time
        June 16, 2014, 4:18PM
    Comments are now closed
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