MTPConnect's Dr Dan Grant: A new future for medical research funding

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Dr Dan Grant is the CEO of MTPConnect, the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals industry growth centre.

The independent Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) has emerged as a national asset; a potential difference-maker for the health and wellbeing of Australians. Announced in the 2014 budget, the government promised a $20 billion fund by 2020 to “invest in cure and discovery research by our people for our people.”

Its establishment was hotly contested but successfully executed in 2015, and through all the policy and personnel changes we’ve since seen in Canberra, the MRFF has endured. It’s on track to reach its $20 billion target by 2020–21, as promised.

With more than $700 million available to fund initiatives over the next four years, the MRFF provides a critical focal point for health and medical research. Its sheer size means it has the potential to reshape the research landscape, which is why the recent release of its new ‘Research and Innovation Priorities’, which guide the deployment of funds, was so eagerly anticipated and closely scrutinised.

The 12 MRFF priority areas for 2018-2020, some new and some refreshed from the first set of priorities, include primary care research, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, consumer-driven research and aged care. 

They reflect a shift in health and medical research from illness treatment to health and wellbeing management and point to a future of health which is digital, personalised, affordable, consumer-centric, scalable and global.

The emphasis on aged care is particularly welcome. The most recent Intergenerational Report from government found that in about 40 years, Australia will have 40,000 people over the age of 100, compared to the 122 centenarians we had in 1975. And as we live longer, the burden of disease increases.

The new MRFF priorities note that “optimising the physical and cognitive health and wellbeing of older Australians is one of society’s greatest challenges.” To help address this so-called ‘ageing tsunami’, it flags “significant investment” to boost research into ageing and aged care.

This is where our regenerative medicine sector is ideally placed to help. There are already more than 1,200 researchers across 12 Australian universities and 45 medical research institutes, and more than 30 Australian companies actively investigating therapies to tackle cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and other dimentias which are the leading causes of death for older Australians. 

Regenerative medicine harnesses cells and tissues to enable the body to regenerate and heal itself.  It’s a relatively new field in which Australia has already demonstrated many successes. As MTPConnect’s report on this sector details, the opportunity now is to build on that foundation, capitalise on our depth of talent in research, clinical trials and advanced manufacturing and elevate the sector to a new level.

And while the focus is rightly on delivering improved quality of life and reducing the disease burden, the potential for commercial returns on our research and product development shouldn’t be underestimated. The global regenerative medicine market is expected to grow to $120 billion by 2035. If Australia can carve out just a five-per cent share of that market, it would be worth $6 billion in annual revenue and create 6,000 new and high-paying jobs.

It’s a point recognised more broadly in the MRFF priories, which include a focus on commercialisation and an emphasis on helping researchers and start-ups bridge the “Valley of Death” between promising findings, proof of concept and commercial products.

Drug repurposing, or identifying new applications for existing drugs, is also given a sharper focus in the new priorities.

On average, it costs AU$3.5 billion and takes 15 years to bring a new prescription drug to market. It’s a process which can also be very hit and miss - just 56 new pharmaceuticals were launched in 2015, out of more than 7,000 compounds in development. 

The MRFF is looking to back investigative research which can expedite the drug discovery pipeline by systematically identifying drugs with repurposed therapeutic potential. As the new MRFF priorities note, it’s an attractive approach to “decreasing development costs and decreasing the time needed to deliver new therapies to the patient.”

In the Parliamentary debate on the introduction of the Medical Research Future Fund Bill in 2015, it was noted that “it may be an Australian who discovers better treatments and even cures for dementia, Alzheimer's, heart disease.” 

With the new priority focus areas in place, and researchers and industry in sectors including regenerative medicine ready to step-up, the MRFF is better placed than ever to drive research which delivers difference-making outcomes for the health and wellbeing of Australians.