Medical research you probably don't know is happening in Brisbane

The Brisbane Report guest editor Professor Frank Gannon, Director and CEO, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, wraps up some of the game-changing medical research happening in Brisbane

Writing this piece, I had an immediate problem that attests to Brisbane’s standing as an internationally significant centre for medical research: There are so many excellent scientists doing world-class research and translation that a long and detailed report, which would read like a telephone book, would be required to cover it all in a fair manner.

To give you an example, at QIMR Berghofer we publish two scientific papers every day. Multiply that by the other highly visible institutes, add in the excellent clinical research work in the hospitals, and you can see that the city abounds with research that is contributing knowledge, and leading to practical health outcomes, worldwide.

 

The other research institutes referred to above include the Translational Research Institute at the Princess Alexandra Hospital campus; the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology’s Kelvin Grove campus; and The University of Queensland institutes at St Lucia, including the Institute of Molecular Bioscience, the Queensland Brain Institute and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

Brisbane's 'knowledge corridor'

They, and QIMR Berghofer, are connected by Brisbane’s busways and form a medical research “knowledge corridor” that also links to the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre – an increasingly busy host to international research conferences.

I arrived in Brisbane six years ago after spending the previous 17 years at the helm of leading research organisations in Europe. I was familiar with QIMR Berghofer from my frequent visits to Brisbane as a board member of the Institute of Molecular Bioscience, and had been impressed by the research happening at both facilities. I have continued to be struck by the standard of research facilities, and scientists, in this city.

"I have continued to be struck by the standard of research facilities, and scientists, in this city"
– Prof Frank Gannon

A 2016 report by Deloitte Access Economics found that Australia produced nearly 4 per cent of global health and medical research output in 2012. This was despite Australia’s accounting for only about 0.32 per cent of the world’s population at that time. Brisbane’s medical research community made a great contribution towards this impressive result.

From immune defence systems to saving the English Premier League

To ensure I share diverse examples of the best research here, I asked the heads of many of these institutions to give me two examples that illustrated the strengths of their work. Given the number of institutions, there isn’t room here to provide the whole – and eclectic – list. However, there are some highlights that should be shared. I decided not to provide the names of the scientists leading these projects, as often they involve multiple research teams and there is a danger of omission, which is a great sin when writing an article like this.

Inevitably, I will start with QIMR Berghofer. While the institute is brimming with promising research, one particularly exciting field of our work is immunotherapy. This is the great new hope for cancer treatments, which involves activating our immune defence systems to target the cancers. It is easy to say that “we are world leaders” in this field, but a confirmation of this is the fact that several international pharmaceutical companies have established joint research projects based around our discoveries, and progress them to clinical trials.

Another particularly exciting area of our research is in identifying new drugs for malaria, a leading cause of death globally, and a continuing major health problem for our near neighbours. In this case, the global importance of this research is demonstrated by the fact the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting these “human challenge” trials, which are being carried out at our clinical trials facility, Q-Pharm.

 

“Human challenge” means exactly that. Trial participants receive live, malaria-causing parasites and we then test whether the candidate drug stops the progression of the disease. We know how to kill the particular species of malaria parasite before it causes illness, so it is a safe process and one which is very effective. It dramatically reduces the time for scanning a potential cure from three years to six months, thereby accelerating the pipeline for delivering new drugs to the world. Volunteers are always welcome at QPharm!

As I restricted my colleagues to giving only two examples, I should not spend more space telling you about other activities at QIMR Berghofer, such as developing great new ways to project the likely outcome of cancer diagnosis using precision medicine; producing detailed maps of the connection patterns in our brains and how these can be related to mental illnesses; research contributing to the elimination of a significant parasitic disease in China; and population health studies that have contributed to the recent decline in Australia’s melanoma rate.

But enough about us. When I asked QUT for examples, they pointed me to a product called the NordBord (video above). This new invention, which protects the hamstring, has resulted from QUT research and is now in a spinoff company. I was delighted to see it being used by eight English Premier League soccer teams, nine AFL teams, five Rugby World Cup teams, four NRL teams and five different national institutes of sport. One of those English Premier League teams is Leicester City and it attributes its surprising success last year, in part, to the use of the NordBord (it may have stopped using the product, as the team wasn't doing so well at the start of the season).

Brisbane’s strengths in its genes

Also at QUT, a world-leading team is unveiling the genomic architecture of arthritis, discovering key genes that may be future targets for diagnosis and therapy. This group has led a global initiative to identify the genes that are the primary cause of the disease, and has discovered the involvement of a specific, potential target gene.

Identifying genes that cause, or increase the risk of, disease is a particular strength in Brisbane and one found not only at QUT but also at QIMR Berghofer and UQ. An exciting new development is that these research groups are now clustering together as partners within Queensland Genomics Health Alliance, funded by Queensland Health.

There are a multitude of examples of exciting medical research at UQ. These include growing medicinal plants at the Institute of Molecular Bioscience with a technology that may be particularly appropriate for developing countries, where there is a lack of infrastructure to ensure the required refrigeration. Interestingly, QUT is doing similar work to grow bananas with improved nutritional value, again for developing countries.

Researchers at the Institute of Molecular Bioscience.

A project at UQ has resulted in the establishment of a new company with a significant investment to develop drug candidates for inflammatory diseases. There is a lot of related work in this area, which extends to autoimmune diseases and cancer, and a number of research groups at the Diamantina Institute and Translational Research Institute are doing significant multidisciplinary research in that area. Some of these diseases are well known, such as multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes. But in total there are nearly 80 autoimmune diseases and hence a lot of people are hoping for some improvements in treatments to be delivered.

Another area of globally important research occurring in Brisbane is into the targeted use of antibiotic therapies. We all know that drug resistance in disease-causing organisms is a major problem, and Brisbane has experts, especially at UQ, who are identifying the organisms and better ways to treat them.

It is hard to write about research in Brisbane without mentioning melanoma and skin cancer, given that it is such a prevalent problem in this region. Researchers from UQ and QIMR Berghofer have joined together to establish the Australian Skin and Skin Cancer Research Centre. One specific project, based at UQ and the PA Hospital, involves whole-body 3D screening, using very advanced technology, to conduct a world-first assessment of skin and the progress of skin cancers. Again, this is an example of how we can bring great technology and an understanding of diseases together to have a major impact on societal wellbeing.

City of collaborations, and they're rising

This project is just one example of the cross-city collaboration, which I find has grown significantly in recent years. Another great illustration of this is the Brisbane Diamantina Health Partners, which brings together four hospitals, two universities, two medical research Institutes, a primary care network, and Queensland Health. This new alliance is accelerating the translation of research to the clinic. With 10 different themes, almost all major illnesses are included and the momentum of the partners is clearly increasing since it was established in 2014.

Another important alliance has resulted in the Herston Imaging Research Facility. We pooled our resources with UQ, QUT and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital to purchase an outstanding combination of top-of-the-range imaging equipment. UQ, and the PA Hospital and TRI have other impressive facilities, which collectively make Brisbane a world centre for research and clinical work involving imaging.

The list could continue but the overall impression is clear: Research of great relevance to Queenslanders, and the world, is occurring in all of the excellent institutions in Brisbane. The buildings are great and beautiful, but the work that goes on inside them is even more spectacular. Increasingly this research is being transferred into the clinic and some is at the stage of clinical trials.

What it means for the economy

While the most obvious benefits of this research are saving and prolonging lives and alleviating suffering, this research is also providing huge benefits to the Queensland and Australian economies. In its report, Deloitte Access Economics found that every dollar invested by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) into the health and medical research workforce between 2000 and 2015 provided a return of $3.20, amounting to a net benefit of more than $23 billion over 15 years. The factors contributing to this financial return included income generated from research commercialisation and the savings made by providing an evidence base for preventative health measures.

The economic benefits don’t stop there. Each of the research institutions mentioned above is a major employer in Brisbane, and Queensland. At QIMR Berghofer, we have about 700 employees. Add to this the workforces at the other institutes and universities, and one recognises the often-overlooked fact that research is a major industry and major contributor to the economic life of Brisbane and that is not restricted simply to the generation of spinoff companies. According to the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist, the state’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce almost doubled to 244,300 between 2001 and 2016, with health professionals making up one of the fastest-growing groups.

"Research is a major industry and major contributor to the economic life of Brisbane"

Brisbane’s science sector is also supporting South East Queensland’s vital tourism industry. Researchers are coming to Brisbane in increasing numbers to attend scientific meetings and to establish and build research collaborations. It is an emerging industry that can grow and expand even more in future.

How to keep the research flowing

However, while the overall picture is bright, there is more work to be done to ensure the excellent medical research happening in Brisbane is translated into the clinic. Research is expensive and scientists have to compete ferociously for their salaries every few years. Support from the community is essential to allow crucial research pathways to be followed and we all appreciate those altruistic donations and put them to very good use. One promising new development is the launch of the Medical Research Future Fund by the Federal Government. Although the fine details haven’t been announced, it is expected that the MRFF will support work closely aligned with translation from the laboratory into the clinic.

In Queensland, and indeed Australia, progress is particularly needed in developing linkages between researchers and industry, and in growing our own industries. The Advance Queensland programs are a welcome boost for these efforts. All institutes have business development teams working on this aspect of research, with increasing success, and I expect that over time these efforts will increase the direct economic benefits generated by our research.

For example, at QIMR Berghofer we have introduced a number of initiatives to increase our collaborations with industry and to push more research towards translation. They include entering into an agreement with global biotherapeutics company CSL, which will provide advice and support on commercialisation, as well as giving our scientists the opportunity to take a two-year leave of absence to work in the biotech sector.

Collaboration is strong in Brisbane, and researchers at QIMR Berghofer are working with industry to push discoveries into market

While there are cross-institute collaborations in place, as outlined above, there is also a need to facilitate more of these, as well as collaborations between clinicians and researchers. We are working on improving these links, and the BDHP is a very useful forum for such discussions.

The research teams, who will be home late again tonight after another long day in the lab, are great citizens and their efforts are helping to prevent, minimise and cure diseases that affect Queenslanders and the world. It is enormously rewarding to be part of this effort, and every day I am reminded that I am lucky to have the opportunity to join in these exciting developments happening here in Brisbane.