Prime Minister’s Prize win for cancer drug

Prime Minister’s Prize win for cancer drug

Illuminate newsletter index page, December 2019
December 2019

Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene, Associate Professor Peter Czabotar and Professor Andrew Roberts
(L-R) Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene,
Associate Professor Peter Czabotar and Professor Andrew Roberts.

A breakthrough new leukaemia drug has seen four of our senior scientists win Australia’s 2019 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

Associate Professor Peter Czabotar, Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene and Professor Andrew Roberts received the prestigious Prime Minister's Prize for Science for their roles in the discovery and development of anti-cancer drug venetoclax.

Venetoclax is used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), the most common leukaemia diagnosed in Australia.

The drug avoids many of the side effects seen during chemotherapy and radiotherapy and is currently being accessed by thousands of patients all over the world.

A triumph of translation

The development of venetoclax began with a landmark discovery made at the Institute in the 1980s that a protein called BCL-2 helps cancer cells survive.

In partnership with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, and AbbVie, the researchers developed venetoclax in a remarkably short time, taking less than seven years from its discovery to the first regulatory approval.

Venetoclax: regulatory milestones

  • 2016 – Approved by US Food and Drug Administration.
  • 2017 – Approved by Therapeutic Goods Administration.
  • 2019 – Listed on Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Professor Roberts is the Cancer Research and Treatments theme leader at the Institute, a haematologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter Mac, and a professor at the University of Melbourne.

He led the world-first clinical trials of venetoclax in Melbourne and said venetoclax was replacing chemotherapy for many patients in Australia and around the world.

“This really is a triumph of basic science and translational innovation, enabling the generation and rapid regulatory approval of a product that is significantly beneficial for many people,” Professor Roberts said.

Collaboration drives discovery

Cell biologist Professor Huang said collaboration was key to the breakthrough cancer drug.

“When people come from different backgrounds and take a multi-dimensional view of the same human problem, it delivers a much richer perspective,” he said.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said he felt enormously privileged to witness the team’s dedication and drive.

“This is a powerful demonstration of Australia’s ability to translate fundamental discoveries into a new class of drugs through international collaboration with major pharmaceutical companies,” he said.

More than 150 clinical trials are currently underway to investigate venetoclax for use in CLL and other cancers.

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