Australian biotech at the forefront of global health responses


Australian biotech companies are at the forefront of global responses following the infection of thousands from the coronavirus, which is continuing to rapidly spread across the world, and a summer of catastrophic fires across Australia.

These events are tragic, far-reaching, and cannot be predicted. Australia’s world-class healthcare innovation being researched and developed is critical, and leading, in the broader global response, and demonstrative of the broader benefits that Australian life sciences delivers.

The coronavirus is now officially more deadly than SARS, and the number of confirmed cases is rapidly increasing across the globe. The life sciences community is rallying to address the crisis, and Australian biotech are at the forefront again.

The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne hospital, delivered a significant breakthrough as the world's first scientific lab outside of China to copy the virus. Growing the virus will help experts understand more about how the coronavirus behaves, and will provide expert international laboratories with crucial information to help combat it.

Australia’s expertise, facilities, and collaborative relationships are being employed with key research being undertaken. Biotech companies joining the fight include Biotron, CSIRO, CSL, and the University of Queensland.

Biotron has a library of small molecule compounds that they are testing against the coronavirus. Biotron’s core expertise lies in the design and development of drugs that target virus-encoded proteins known as viroporins. The company’s scientists were the first to identify and publish data showing that the E protein of the coronavirus is viroporin and a good target for antiviral drugs. CSIRO’s research will help to determine the characteristics of the current virus and aims to paint a clearer picture of the new coronavirus, including how long it takes to develop and replicate, how it impacts on the respiratory system and how it can be transmitted. Coronavirus is quite different to influenza virus so whilst not a core area of focus for CSL, given the mounting public health issue, it is investigating what adjacencies in expertise, technologies and facilities it might contribute as a collaborator to the global effort. To this end, it is currently very engaged with various institutions to assess possible strategies and options. The University of Queensland is using the knowledge of the virus’ genetic sequence to rapidly generate a new vaccine. The key to the speedy development of this potential vaccine is its 'molecular clamp' technology that provides stability to the viral protein that is the primary target for our immune defence; it was invented by UQ scientists and patented by UniQuest.

This world-class biomedical research is part of a global vaccine development pipeline, and is testimony to the substantial contribution the Australian life sciences ecosystem delivers to the world. Industry is critical in the development of these potential healthcare solutions.

Innovative products from two Australian biotech companies have also been helping to treat the burns of those injured from the bushfires. Melbourne-based medical device company PolyNovo’s product, NovoSorb BTM, offers a dermal scaffold for the regeneration of lost dermis through burns, surgical excision, trauma, or infection; and Avita Medical’s spray-on skin enables healthcare professionals to produce a suspension of spray-on skin cells using a small sample of the patient’s own skin so that it can regenerate the outer layer of natural, healthy skin.

Stable policy is essential to the future of this industry, and for ensuring the promise and potential benefits of biotechnology for Australia can be realised. The pivotal Research and Development Tax Incentive remains by far the most critical programme in supporting the translation of R&D, with over 90 per cent of 2019 CEO Industry Position Survey respondents saying policy stability on the R&D Tax Incentive is ‘very important’ or ‘important’.

AusBiotech is dedicated to the development, growth and prosperity of the Australian life science industry and will continue to strongly oppose the changes in the recent Bill via the newly-announced Senate Inquiry, because Australia’s life science R&D is the future of healthcare.