What’s interesting about Australian drug discovery? 

Australia’s drug discovery industry shows promise and innovation, as well as business opportunities. DDW’s Megan Thomas takes a look at some of the reasons why we should be keeping an interested eye on the developments coming out of this country.  

The Sector Snapshot 2022: Expansion is continuous  

The Sector Snapshot 2022 was commissioned by AusBiotech, an Australian industry body representing and advocating for organisations doing business in and with the global life sciences economy1. Its snapshot report aimed to provide both an overview of the sector in Australia to determine how the sector has changed since this data was collected in 2017 and 20192. 

This report shows sector growth of 43% in the past two years, with 2,654 organisations collaborating across Australia. The research also shows that 1,427 of the 2,654 organisations (54%) are industry-based; the number of companies undertaking biotech research and development has grown by 40% since 2019.2

The report’s executive summary states: “The high-value talent backing our Australian biotechnology sector has increased and there are now approximately 263,693 people employed. The number of employees behind our biotech companies has also expanded, increasing 21% compared with 2019 from approximately 87,397 people in 2019 to 105,569 in 2022.  

“The Australian life sciences industry is dominated by the medical technologies (devices and diagnostics) and digital health companies (577), followed closely by biotherapeutics companies (548) and then food and agriculture biotechnology companies (302). In terms of the economic impact of the sector, there are currently 192 life sciences companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), increasing by 19% from 2019’s 161 listed companies. 26 of these companies have listed in the last 24 months.” 

Another key figure outlined by AusBiotech is that Victoria and New South Wales are home to 73% of the life science sector. This includes the likes of Pfizer, BasePair Genomics, Cynata Therapeutics and Canfield Scientific, to name a few. Companies based outside these hubs that are also worth watching include Microba Life Sciences, a metagenomics platform for cacteriome drug discovery in Brisbane; Dimerix, a drug discovery platform in Fitzroy; PYC Therapeutics, a peptide drug discovery company in Nedlands; and ImmVirX, a company dealing with oncolytic viruses in New Lambton Heights.  

Ground-breaking therapies 

In September this year, Aucentra Therapeutics announced that it received regulatory approval to progress to a Phase I/II trial for Auceliciclib in combination with Temozolomide for recurrent/refractory Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) patients3 

The company said: “As of the 28 September 2022, patients have been dosed with Auceliciclib, and dosing has completed for Cohorts 1 – 5 of the monotherapy dose escalation, and Cohorts 1a, 1b for the combination therapy arms with Temozolomide (TMZ). To date, all cohorts of Auceliciclib have been well tolerated with no dose limiting toxicities observed to date even at the highest dose level. Additionally, no drug related serious adverse events have been observed. 

“Based on these findings, Aucentra have further amended the study protocol in light of the recent pharmacology findings to now include twice daily dosing of Auceliciclib for 28 days of each treatment cycle for monotherapy and combination dose escalation arms. This combination therapy escalation arm will then expand at the recommended Phase II dose level and further evaluate the potential efficacy of Auceliciclib in improving patient outcomes for this difficult to treat disease. This clinical trial has been designed specifically to provide an alternative treatment option for GBM patients where there is a large unmet need due to limited treatment options for this aggressive disease.” 

According to GlobalData’s Pharma Intelligence Center, Australia saw 865 diagnosed incident cases of glioblastoma in 2021. Further, the five-year survival rate for glioblastoma is 4.6% in Australia as per the Australian Cancer Research Foundation4. Thus, Auceliciclib’s Phase II trial will become ground-breaking therapy for glioblastoma, says GlobalData.  

Anupama Mishra, Pharma Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “There exists a bright market opportunity for Auceliciclib to be positioned as a viable alternative for brain tumours metastasised from other cancers including breast and lung if it demonstrates safety and efficacy in its ongoing clinical trials. Notably, temozolomide is the only effective recognised therapy for glioblastoma. Additionally, Auceliciclib being an oral formulation (capsule) and with its proven ability to cross the BBB makes it a highly promising drug in the pipeline for glioblastoma treatment in Australia as well as globally.” 

The research and academia landscape 

WEHI, located in the University of Melbourne and previously known as the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and as the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, is Australia’s oldest medical research institute5. In 2020, WEHI expanded its early stage drug discovery capabilitiesto establish the National Drug Discovery Centre (NDDC)6. The NDDC enables Australian medical researchers to access the latest in advanced ultra-high throughput screening, addressing a critical early challenge in the drug discovery pipeline. It provides a fully staffed facility which include automation, over 100,000 lead-like small molecules, acoustic dispensing technology, assay miniaturisation, as well as access to specialists. 

In October 2022, researchers identified a new way to treat young children with Kawasaki Disease (KD) to prevent life-threatening coronary artery damage and heart attacks. The WEHI-led study showed that treatment with drugs called mTOR inhibitors can prevent the formation of coronary artery damage and aneurysms, a much-feared complication of KD7. Importantly, mTOR inhibitors are already known to be safe and effective in other clinical uses, meaning this therapy could potentially be trialled rapidly in the clinic for children with KD.  

Also in October 2022, research to deliver new treatment options for patients with the most common and deadliest type of brain cancer has been supported through $4.6 million from the Medical Research Future Fund. The programme brings together researchers and clinicians from WEHI, The Brain Cancer Centre, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the University of Melbourne, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. The collaborative “GLIMMER” programme aims to improve survival outcomes and quality of life for patients with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer with a five-year survival rate of just 5%. 

Another landmark research and academia hub in the country includes Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) in Brisbane, a Griffith University research institute which focuses on early stage and pre-clinical drug discovery. Directions of study and research include cancer, infectious diseases, neurological disorders, drug resistance and spinal cord injury repair4 

In October 2022, Griffith University was awarded more than $4 million across four National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) fellowships, at a success rate of 18.2% (national 14.9%)8. The researchers included: Professor Kate Seib (Institute for Glycomics), who was awarded $2,082,170 for the project A comprehensive vaccine-based strategy to combat gonorrhoea; Dr Laura Diamond (Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Health Group) was awarded $630,150 for the project Smart technology for hip osteoarthritis: a personalised real-world ‘move’ into the future; Dr Miaomiao Liu (Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Sciences Group) was awarded $655,150 for the project New method to identify disease-associated drug targets; and Dr Leopold Aminde (School of Medicine and Dentistry, Health Group) was awarded $655,150 for the project Estimating the health equity and productivity impacts of dietary salt reduction in people with chronic kidney disease in Australia. 

Also in October 2022, researchers from Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) was awarded $1,425,156 under the federal government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) to develop potential new drugs to treat schizophrenia using patient derived stem cells9. The researchers analysed large amounts of olfactory nerve cell data including whole-genome expression profiles and discovered a faulty gene signalling pathway in schizophrenia patient stem cells.   

References 

  1. https://www.ausbiotech.org/ 
  2. https://www.ausbiotech.org/documents/item/707#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20employees%20behind,2019%20to%20105%2C569%20in%202022 
  3. https://www.aucentra.com/clinical-trials/ 
  4. https://www.griffith.edu.au/institute-drug-discovery 
  5. https://www.wehi.edu.au/ 
  6. https://www.wehi.edu.au/research/research-technologies/drug-discovery  
  7. https://www.wehi.edu.au/news/new-way-prevent-heart-complications-children 
  8. https://news.griffith.edu.au/2022/10/14/congratulations-to-our-nhmrc-investigator-fellowship-recipients/?_gl=1*1p53q99*_ga*MTIzNTY1MTU1Ny4xNjY3MjE3MDE3*_ga_5GKYJEBSN9*MTY2NzIxNzAxNi4xLjEuMTY2NzIxNzE5Mi4wLjAuMA 
  9. https://news.griffith.edu.au/2022/10/06/gridd-receives-funding-to-develop-drugs-to-treat-schizophrenia/?_gl=1*1ws50fh*_ga*MTIzNTY1MTU1Ny4xNjY3MjE3MDE3*_ga_5GKYJEBSN9*MTY2NzIxNzAxNi4xLjEuMTY2NzIxNzQ5OC4wLjAuMA..  

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