Anti-cancer team wins PM’s prize

James Riley
Editorial Director

A team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research has taken the top innovation gong at the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science for its role in the development of an anti-cancer drug known as venetoclax, which is forecast to generate US$1.4 billion in global revenue this year, and US $5.6 billion in 2025.

The new drug is based on a landmark breakthrough discovery made at the Institute during the 1980’s and was developed by the team and developed in a partnership with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, and AbbVie.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are the nation’s most prestigious awards for achievement in science and research-based innovation. The PM’s Prizes for Science is celebrating its 20th year in 2019 (it was called the Australia Prize from 1990-99).

Arguably the top award is the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, which attracts a $250,000 cash prize, was won by Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger for her fundamental contributions to research in pure and applied mathematics. Her work explains the complex mathematics required for applications such as secure digital communication and encryption for the web.

The impact of Professor Praeger’s work is extraordinary, particularly in cryptographic software systems, but across many scientific disciplines and across different industries.

But the award we like to highlight is the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation – which was introduced by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a part of his innovation focus – which honours the further industrial or commercial development of research.

Of course, all of the prizes must be celebrated, and all of the recipients are genuine Australian heroes, (there are others for excellence in Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, New Innovators, and in Teaching.)

But given that Australia’s record of underperformance in research translation, the successful pioneers in this area need a special recognition, and this is where chooses to put its focus.

The team that developed the venetoclax anti-cancer drug was made up of associate professor Peter Czabotar, professor David Huang, professor Guillaume Lessene and professor Andrew Roberts were recognised for their roles in the development of venetoclax, a drug that can flick a switch within a leukaemia cell to kill the cell, giving patients a vastly improved treatment outcome.

The clinical benefits of venetoclax have been seen in significantly better treatment outcomes for leukemia patients. Venetoclax was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the US in 2016, and by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia a year later (and subsequently listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme earlier this year.)

The drug has been replacing chemotherapy for many patients here and worldwide. Venetoclax has been granted five Breakthrough Therapy Designations from the FDA and more than 150 trials have commenced globally.

Venetoclax sales were US$344 million last year and are forecast at US$1.4 billion in 2019 and US$5.6 billion in 2025. The commercial success has meant significant milestone and ongoing royalty payments to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, which will fund new drug discovery programs and fuel the translation of scientific discoveries from bench to bedside.

In Australia, the discovery of the drug and the work performed in its development has had a number of direct benefits, including the world-leading access for 650 patients to venetoclax during clinical trials, and the investment of more than $20 million by pharmaceutical companies in Australian clinical trials.

It led to a multimillion-dollar investment in laboratory research in Melbourne by Genentech and AbbVie during drug development, which employed and trained more than 25 scientists and students

The citation for the award is instructive: It says the four researchers “collaborated brilliantly to achieve a world-first innovation. They worked as a team and brought their leadership and individual expertise to each step as required – biology, drug discovery, pre-clinical testing and clinical trials – to create this breakthrough cancer drug.”

Partnering with Genentech and AbbVie, the team discovered and developed the drug in a remarkably short time, taking less than seven years from its discovery to the first regulatory approval.

The team members come from different disciplines and will share a $250,000 cash prize.

  • Associate Professor Peter Czabotar, a structural biologist whose role included figuring out the crystal structures of BCL-2 family proteins with complex lead compounds (which directly informed the potency of high potency molecules)
  • Professor David Huang, a molecular cell biologist who was crucial in identifying properties of relevant cells and the preclinical efficacy of anti-cancer agent venetoclax and the related BH3-mimetic drug navitoclax
  • Professor Guillaume Lessene, a medicinal chemist who developed the Institute’s high affinity BH3-mimetics
  • Professor Andrew Roberts, a clinician scientist who played a lead role in the clinical trials of navitoclax and venetoclax.

The Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year awarded to Associate Professor Laura Mackay for identifying immune cells that protect against both infection and cancer.

The Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year awarded to Associate Professor Elizabeth New for pioneering imaging tools that allow scientists to see deeper into cells than ever before.

The Prize for New Innovators awarded to Dr Luke Campbell for inventing and commercialising headphones that learn and adapt to your unique hearing, delivering a personalised audio experience.

The Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools awarded to Mrs Sarah Finney for raising student interest and participation in science and advocating for a strengthened science curriculum in South Australia.

The Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools awarded to Dr Samantha Moyle for leading integrated learning in STEM at her school and being an effective and passionate role model for her students.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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