Insight – Australian innovation behind life-changing medicines
1 June 2022
From the electronic pacemaker (1926) and ultrasound (1961), to multi-channel cochlear implants (1970s) and a globally important cancer vaccine (1991), Australian ingenuity has given the world many medical miracles.
Innovation is at the centre of the story behind Gardasil, the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine. Professor Ian Frazer and Dr Jian Zhou had been trying to find a treatment for HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer. A chance discovery shifted their focus to finding a preventative vaccine. As of September 2021, more than 350 million doses of Gardasil and 110 million doses of Gardasil 9 (which replaced Gardasil) have been administered worldwide.
Spray-on skin is another world-first developed in Australia. Professor Fiona Wood recognised the potential of tissue engineering technology to treat burns. She developed a technique where healthy skin cells are taken from a burn victim and grown in a lab. These healthy cells are then sprayed on the victim’s wound. Her invention sped the recovery time for burn victims and is now used globally.
World-leading research across major therapeutic areas
Australia is consistently one of the world’s top 10 contributors to life sciences research, according to Nature Index. Its world-class universities – with seven in the world’s top 100 – are a vast resource for business innovation.
Australian drug development company AdAlta and Australian biotech Carina are investigating the use of AdAlta’s i-body technology to develop CAR-T therapies to treat solid cancers. The size and structure of i-bodies give them the ability to bind to therapeutic targets that traditional antibodies can’t. Read the full case study.
Queensland’s Griffith University will start Phase I clinical trials for a malaria vaccine in late 2022. The world-first vaccine, PlasProtecT, can be freeze-dried into a powder or frozen. It can be easily deployed into malaria-endemic countries where there were an estimated 627,000 deaths due to the disease in 2020.
Australia is home to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest high-containment facility. CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) conducts research to protect Australia’s industries and the community, from exotic and emerging infectious diseases. In 2020, ACDP received over 200 enquiries for research collaborations and screening compound efficacy related to SARS-CoV-2 alone.
Mesoblast uses a proprietary technology platform to develop and commercialise allogeneic cellular medicines. These are used to treat complex ailments such as cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Its novel allogeneic product candidates are based on rare mesenchymal lineage cells, collected from the bone marrow of healthy adult donors.
Proprietary processes are then used to expand them to a highly reproducible cell population. This enables manufacturing at industrial scale for commercial purposes. Mesoblast’s cells can be administered to patients without the need for donor–recipient matching or recipient immune suppression.
Researchers at the University of Sydney are using stem cell organoids to test genetic therapies. In May 2022, the Stem Cell Medicine Group found that both brain and retina can be grown in the dish from stem cells. The ability to grow brain and retina organoids could lead to major improvements in the study of neurological diseases of the eye and brain.
A vibrant health and biomedical ecosystem
Australia has a thriving health and biomedical sector comprising universities, research institutes, medical precincts and cooperative research centres. They include:
- small and medium enterprises working to commercialise biological therapies
- research institutions with a focus on discovery and translational research
- small-scale specialist facilities that manufacture cell and gene therapies, and larger facilities that make vaccines and recombinant proteins
- multinational corporations, some with R&D capacity and their own manufacturing sites.
There are at least 70 independent medical research institutes in Australia, spanning all states. There are over 1,342 medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, including 152 listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. There are also more than 30 medtech incubators and accelerators. The industry growth centre MTPConnect works to establish Australia as a pre-eminent Asia-Pacific hub for medical technology and pharmaceutical companies.
Dedicated innovation hubs
Australia has large biomedical clinical research precincts in all major cities including:
These precincts are home to research institutes, biomedical organisations, universities, clinics and hospitals working to translate research from bench to bedside.
Funding support for innovation
Australia is committed to fostering innovation. Companies can access major government funding incentives and grants to support research and development, including clinical trials and manufacturing. The Australian Government has earmarked at least A$6.8 billion in direct funding in medical research over the next four years alone. This includes:
The MRFF includes A$750 million over 10 years from 2022–23 for Clinical Trials Activity. It also includes a dedicated research translation theme to ensure medical discoveries are commercialised and adopted into the health system, backed with A$2.1 billion over 10 years.
In addition, medical products are one of six priority areas eligible for funding through Australia’s A$2.2 billion University Research Commercialisation Action Plan. The plan supports research translation into products, services and businesses.
Australia also invests in R&D and extension through its national science agency CSIRO, competitive grants via the Australian Research Council and the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program.
Australia’s package of incentives includes:
- The R&D Tax Incentive offers tax offsets for eligible R&D expenditure, reducing the cost to businesses of undertaking R&D activities
- The Patent Box is a A$206 million scheme to reduce taxes on income from Australian medical and biotech patents. It aims to encourage businesses to undertake their R&D in Australia and keep patents here.
Australia’s legal system also provides robust protection for intellectual property, encouraging innovation and safeguarding investment. Australia’s IP regime consistently ranks in the top tier of international IP systems, and is aligned with international standards. Australia’s 25 years of patent protection provides market exclusivity and a financial incentive for companies to innovate further.
From bench to bedside, do it all in Australia
Innovate. Evaluate. Expand. Do it all in Australia. Visit the Australian Trade and Investment Commission's Biologics page
to find out more about Australia’s biologics capabilities.
 Cancer Council, The HPV vaccine, accessed 12 May 2022.