More grants for medical research

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Health minister Greg Hunt has announced $125 million in new grants for medical research including tens of millions for research into immunotherapy, neurodegenerative disease and the eradication of hepatitis C.

The grants are headlined by almost $20 million for research into tropical disease at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

Other grants include $13.2 million for researchers at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, The University of Melbourne and Monash University to continue their research into immunotherapy.

Immunotherapies work by harnessing the body's immune system to fight cancer cells. Several are now reimbursed through the PBS, including MSD's KEYTRUDA and Bristol-Myers Squibb's OPDIVO.

The program is led by Executive Director of Cancer Research Professor Joe Trapani.

“Our community is now familiar with immunotherapy in the form of antibodies used to treat patients like Jarryd Roughead and Ron Walker – but even these approaches do not work for all patients.

“We are now seeing very exciting results from another approach called adoptive immunotherapy,” said Professor Trapani.

Under adoptive immunotherapy cancer-killing cells in a patient’s own blood are harvested and 'super-charged' in a lab at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Once transfused back into the patient, the engineered cells, called ‘CAR T cells’ target the cancer cells.

"They kill them directly; divide and make more killer cells at the site of the cancer; and inflame the tumour so the immune response spreads," said the Centre in a statement.

It said the approach could soon be approved as a standard treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia in children. It will use the new funding to adapt the treatment for more common cancers, such as lung and breast cancer, and further clinical trials are imminent.

A grant of $7 million for Professor Margaret Hellard at the Burnet Institute to research the elimination of Hepatitis C as a global public health threat.

The new generation direct acting antivirals with a cure rate of over 90 per cent were funded through the PBS last year. They are revolutionising treatment for tens of millions of people living with the virus globally including almost one quarter of a million Australians.

Professor Hellard and her team’s program will contribute to the global response to eradication and Australia achieving elimination by 2030.

Over $13 million for a program led by Professor Ashley Bush at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. The research is looking at biomarkers to aid clinical trials for neurodegenerative disease.

Research into neurodegenerative disease is a global priority given the scientific challenge, the lack of effective treatments and the rising incidence of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

"While these diseases present with different symptoms, Professor Bush’s team discovered that they share a common underlying feature - the inability to clear certain metals and proteins from the brain," said the NHMRC in a statement. "The program aims to explore these clearance pathways in the brain and identify new targets to help better diagnose and treat these diseases."