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Medical research ‘needs more commercialisation support’

Image: Royal Society of Victoria

Post-pandemic opportunity exists to carry out more clinical trials in Australia, says commercialisation authority

Australia is in a perfect position to ramp up its work on clinical trials and must improve its commercialisation of medical work, researchers have been told.

Rebecca Tunstall (pictured), stakeholder engagement director at MTP Connect, a federally run medical technology and pharmaceuticals growth centre, told a Royal Society of Victoria seminar that while trials had stalled in many parts of the world, Australia had been able to keep them going during the pandemic.

“There’s been an opportunity to continue and rebound. Because the sector is involved in the response to Covid, it’s actually done quite well.”

There was “a great amount of collaboration between industry, research and government to address what needed to happen for Australia” in 2020, and companies that worked directly in infectious diseases and with respiratory issues often thrived, she said. “From that perspective, it’s been great, but of course the university sector was hit hard with international students and the impact on the research sector.”

Australia’s R&D tax incentives and strong medical research institutes make it a popular destination for clinical trials, she said. “We’ve got great skills and knowledge in running those early-phase clinical trials.”

However, “our productivity for commercialisation does continue to decline”, she said. “We are punching above our weight for research but when you look at innovation outputs…we’re ahead of Hungary but we’re behind Bulgaria…We need to be supporting the commercialisation of the excellent research that’s coming out of medical research institutes and universities.”

“It’s really key for us to harness the opportunity to get more clinical trials in Australia, but we also need to be ensuring we’ve got the infrastructure to support that. We already know we’ve got a shortage of clinical research associates.”

Early-stage companies that were “pre-revenue” had experienced difficulties as they were unable to access the JobKeeper supplement for their staff, she told the seminar on 11 March. “We saw that the greatest impact was on those that were involved in basic research and pre-clinical R&D, compared with those that were concentrating on later-phase trials or commercial activities.”

Australia’s medical and pharmaceutical industry is the country’s eighth-largest exporter, worth around A$8.2 billion and running 1,800 clinical trials, employing 7,000 people, each year.

During 2020, investment soared, Tunstall said. “There was around A$650 million raised by [medical technology and pharmaceutical] companies in the first six months of 2020, which was an increase of 110 per cent on the first half of 2019.”

She said Australian health innovation had created companies such as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, liver cancer treatment specialist Sirtex Medical and hearing implant manufacturer Cochlear.

“You don’t need to be big and you don’t need to have products on the market to be successful; you can have success through being acquired or attracting funding,” she added. For instance, Inflazome, which produces anti-inflammatory drugs, was a joint venture between the University of Queensland and Trinity College Dublin. It was acquired by Roche in late 2020.

“All of these successes are underpinned by Australia’s sophisticated medical research environment—we’ve got an excellent research infrastructure and a world-class health system,” she said.

MTP Connect is involved in three Medical Research Future Fund programmes worth nearly A$100m: the Biomedical Translation Bridge, BioMedTech Horizons and the Researcher Exchange and Development within Industry Initiative.

BioMedTech Horizons is aimed at filling gaps in the early development of biotech. So far, 39 projects on topics including stem cells, bionics and surgical research have been funded with up to A$1m.

MTP Connect also helps project teams and Cooperative Research Centres write grant applications and plan their budgets. It is now working on a “comprehensive” skills gap analysis, to be published later this year. Its preliminary work uncovered deficiencies in product development and a “shortage of technical skills” in pharmacology and toxicology.