Government announces support for COVID-19 research projects

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Health minister Greg Hunt has announced funding for a range of research projects aimed at developing treatments, diagnostics and a vaccine for COVID-19.

Mr Hunt said the government has allocated $10.4 million for 13 early-stage projects through the Biomedical Translation Bridge (BTB) program. The BTB is part of the landmark Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

The BTB program is administered by MTPConnect.

MTPConnect managing director and CEO, Dr Dan Grant, said round three of BTB specifically targeted COVID-19 projects that could achieve an impact in less than 12-months.

“Five of the 13 projects and $4.1 million respond to the immediate priority of addressing the COVID-19 health emergency, including a vaccine candidate being developed in South Australia, a new treatment for respiratory complications of COVID-19 selected for a global WHO-endorsed clinical study, a preventive nasal spray developed from an approved antiviral, a rapid response test to predict severity of disease progression and a ventilated hood to better care for patients and protect healthcare staff,” said Dr Grant.

“Another eight selected projects and $6.3 million will help patients of the future benefit from new research into treatments and diagnostics for conditions such as muscular dystrophy, breast cancer, metabolic and fibrotic disease, prostate cancer, ataxia, antimicrobial resistance and the Zika virus."

Five of the projects focused on COVID-19 research will receive $4.1 million. One project, conducted by the University of Melbourne, involves developing a ventilated hood for patients in isolation.

Mr Hunt said the hood provides better respiratory treatment for patients, reducing the need for invasive ventilation, and also gives hospital staff greater protection from COVID-19, reducing viral levels in the immediate surroundings.

Mr Hunt said, "The novel hood is effective, comfortable, reusable and can be rapidly improved for urgent supply to Australian hospitals, clinics, GP surgeries, and beyond. A smaller, mobile version under development will have significant health benefits in developing countries and for patient transport."

Other COVID-19 research projects include a vaccine candidate being developed in South Australia, a new treatment for respiratory complications of COVID-19, a preventive nasal spray, and a rapid response test to predict how severely the disease will progress.

The remaining eight projects, receiving $6.3 million, will help patients of the future with new treatments and diagnostics for conditions such as muscular dystrophy, breast cancer, metabolic and fibrotic disease, prostate cancer, ataxia, antimicrobial resistance and the Zika virus.

Mr Hunt said industry has contributed a further $28 million to the 13 projects.

Sydney-based Pharmaxis has received $1 million in matching funding to take another one of its pipeline of amine oxidase inhibitors (PXS‐4699) through to the commencement of human clinical trials.

PXS‐4699 is a dual amine oxidase inhibitor that is expected to protect muscle and reduce inflammation as well as organ fibrosis in Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

“The Pharmaxis research has potential to make a difference to patients with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a debilitating genetic disorder affecting thousands of Australians. It’s an example of the high‐quality research translation being generated in Australia which will progress to clinical trials,” said Dr Grant.

UniQuest’s welcomed its grant to progress a novel first-in-class oral therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer.

UniQuest Executive Director of IP Commercialisation Dr Mark Ashton said the project was based on innovative research at the University of Queensland.

“This is an exciting new approach to developing treatments for prostate cancer patients who have or will become resistant to standard treatments,” said Dr Ashton.

“Our novel compounds target a non-hormonal mechanism in prostate cancer which we know, based on the UQ research, correlates to disease progression, and we have demonstrated anti-tumour activity in a prostate cancer model comparable to the current standard of care."

UniQuest CEO Dr Dean Moss said the funding was a strong endorsement for the project.

“In a competitive scheme, the success of our BTB application is a clear third-party validation of the projects strong data package as well as our translational drug discovery initiative, QEDDI. There is an urgent need for more effective treatments with improved safety and quality of life for cancer patients, with more than 174,000 new cases of prostate cancer diagnosed in the US last year,” said Dr Moss.

Starpharma also welcomed its $1 million grant to expedite the development and commercialisation of its COVID-19 antiviral nasal spray SPL7013.

Dr Jackie Fairley, Starpharma CEO, said, “We are very pleased that the SPL7013 COVID-19 nasal spray has been selected for this grant, especially from such a large and competitive field of applicants. This is an important initiative aimed at accelerating Australian innovations to address the global COVID-19 pandemic and we thank the Government for continuing to fund programs like these that drive the local development of novel, innovative therapies for patients globally.

"The selection of Starpharma’s program recognises its near-term potential and the global relevance of the SPL7013 COVID-19 nasal spray, with differentiated features that are complementary to other preventative strategies, like vaccines. We are proud of our contribution to the Australian biomedical industry response to combat COVID-19.”

BTB Round 2 recipients:

Bard1 Life Sciences - developing a novel high-throughput SubB2M-based liquid biopsy blood tests for breast cancer screening and monitoring based on a unique cancer-specific probe.

Cincera Therapeutics - developing a new drug treatment for Metabolic and Fibrotic Disease.

Envision Sciences - developing diagnosis and prognostic detection methods for prostate cancer, using blood and tissue samples.

LBT Innovations - developing APAS-AMR: An Automated Plate Assessment System for Anti-Microbial Resistance using Artificial Intelligence.

Pharmaxis - developing compound PXS-4699 with tailored dual action to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

The University of Adelaide - developing a world-first needle-free Zika virus vaccine.

The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health - developing a device for guiding therapy in ataxia and imbalance.

UniQuest Pty - developing first-in-class drug candidates for the treatment of prostate and other cancers.

BTB COVID-19 Round 3 recipients:

Dimerix Bioscience - developing a new treatment for respiratory complications as a result of COVID-19 in a global clinical study with a potential fast track pathway to clinical practice.

Starpharma - developing an intranasal spray, utilising an already-marketed, broad-spectrum antiviral dendrimer for COVID-19 and potential use in future pandemics.

SpeeDx - developing the InSignia(TM) Respiratory Virus Host Response test – a rapid-response COVID-19 assay to enhance Australia’s current and future pandemic preparedness.

University of Melbourne - developing a novel ventilated hood for patient isolation to provide better patient respiratory treatment and protect hospital staff from COVID-19.

Vaxine - developing an Australian COVID-19 vaccine, COVAX-19, which comprises of a recombinant spike protein antigen formulated with Vaxine’s proprietary Advax adjuvant.