Best early-stage projects awarded at AusBiotech 2023


QIMR Berghofer and Murdoch University researchers were announced as joint winners at AusBiotech 2023’s Early-Stage Innovation Forum (ESIF) held in Brisbane on 3 November.

A novel immunotherapy (IO) for IO-resistant cancers and a personalised medicine for familial hypercholesterolemia patients, presented by Associate Professor Michelle Wykes and Dr Craig Macintosh respectively, were named Best Translational Research at the ESIF rapid-fire pitch event.

Recently held at AusBiotech 2023 in Brisbane, the twice-annual ESIF competition featured presentations from Australia's local research institutes, universities, hospitals and pre-series A companies in the areas of human therapeutics and enabling technologies. Fifteen presenters from across Australia pitched technologies to an expert panel, receiving feedback intended to be helpful to their technology’s commercialisation journey.

A/Prof Wykes represented QIMR Berghofer and Fovero Therapeutics, a spinout company commercialising the technology, to present a proprietary Galectin-9 pipeline to treat IO resistance in solid tumours.

Fovero Therapeutics therapeutic pipeline is underpinned by the idea that malaria, cancer, and autoimmune diseases share a common aetiology—dysregulated immune function. The company’s lead antibody aims to improve the efficiency of multiple immune cells to kill cancer cells, and indication where there is significant unmet need. In pre-clinical models, Fovero’s novel immunotherapy completely clears MSS Colon cancer and triple negative breast cancer and the cancer does not reoccur for 300 days even when given cancer again.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity to present my work as a medical researcher and founder to leading industry experts, VCs and investors at the Early-Stage Innovation Forum. My company Fovero Therapeutics is just six months old, and the event marked my first time making a public pitch to the investment community. I was incredibly excited to win and the experience has given me a huge shot of confidence as I continue promoting Fovero’s work to investors.

“Fovero is focused on leveraging my medical research to develop novel immunotherapies for hard-to-treat cancers. At the end of the day, events like the ESIF keep spurring me forward in my ultimate goal - to improve outcomes for cancer patients who desperately need more treatment options.” A/Prof Wykes said.

Fovero Therapeutics has been selected to be part of the Brisbane Economic Development Agency's MedTech Global Accelerator programme and received CUREator funding to conduct final due diligence before the technology, in readiness for progression to clinical trials.

Dr Craig Macintosh represented Murdoch University, in a submission prepared by Dr Sze How Bong, to present a personalised medicine for familial hypercholesterolemia patients’ mutations in the low density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR) gene.

Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a heritable monogenic disorder with elevated plasma low-density lipoprotein- cholesterol (LDL-C) serum levels from birth, mainly due to mutations in the low-density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR) gene and defective LDLR activity.

FH affects about 1 in 250 people, and if left untreated, individuals develop premature atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease and often die at a statistically younger age. Statins are the benchmark for lipid lowering management, however around 70-80 percent of FH patients treated do not reach the recommended guideline levels of LDL-C, while 10-15 percent of patients show intolerance to statin.

Dr Macintosh presented the laboratory’s novel strategy to rescue the activity of LDLR in individuals with mutations found in dispensable domains through splice modulation/exon skipping, as demonstrated by the team’s previous work in developing three FDA approved drugs for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).

Patients with mutations in the dispensable domain exhibit milder phenotypes and in vitro studies showed that deletion of the dispensable reduces LDL binding by 10 percent. The research team hypothesise that removing dispensable LDLR domain using antisense oligomer (AO)-mediated exon skipping technology is a plausible therapeutic strategy to rescue LDLR activity.

We designed and assessed the efficacy of AOs to induce removal of the dispensable domain in patient-derived skin fibroblasts and analysed the changes in LDL uptake. Our lead compounds induced nearly 100 percent exon skipping and improved LDL uptake by nearly 3-fold (300 percent).

“The Early-Stage Innovation Forum (ESIF) at AusBiotech 2023 provided us with the opportunity to showcase an exciting proof-of-concept study for the treatment of familial hypercholesterolemia. The experience proved invaluable as we received expert advice on areas for improvement and gained insights into potential next steps. The feedback from our presentation was highly positive, and we are currently engaged in early discussions with potential investors and collaborators to formulate the most strategic plan for our future endeavours. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the organisers of AusBiotech 2023 and the ESIF panel for accepting our talk and recognising us as one of the winners,” Dr Craig Macintosh says.

The AusBiotech 2023 ESIF winners each received a $5,000 travel award to cover the cost of participating in any future science conference of their choice, kindly gifted by Sanofi as ESIF competition sponsors.

he AusBiotech 2023 ESIF was judged by a panel of experts including Sarah Meibusch (OneVentures), Jean-Francois Toussaint (Sanofi), Mark Ashton (Griffith University), and Samantha South (University of Western Australia).

The next ESIF will be held at AusMedtech 2023 on May 22-23 in Adelaide, featuring medical devices, diagnostics, and digital health technologies.